4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I think I’m starting to like this” — The Flash (1990)

The success of 1989’s Batman led to a flurry of activity from Warner Bros. as they tried to cash in on that film’s combination of high box office, good word of mouth, and through-the-roof merchandise sales.

One of the ones that actually made it to air was a TV series featuring the Flash, which only lasted for one season in 1990-1991.

Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo had pitched a Justice League­-type team show to Warner Bros. in 1988, but got very little traction. Then, following Batman’s success, new Warner president Jeff Sagansky expressed interest in doing a Flash TV show, and Bilson and DeMeo were tapped to produce it. (The Flash was part of their original pitch in any case.)

The original Flash was created by Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert in 1940 during the big wave of superhero creation inspired by the success of Batman and Superman. A college athlete named Jay Garrick, he inhaled hard water vapor, which granted him super-speed. (Just roll with it.) Like many superheroes, he was hugely popular during the World War II era, and faded in popularity in the post-war period. Flash Comics, in which he debuted, was cancelled in 1949, and while the character continued to appear as a member of the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics, that ended in 1951 when the title was rechristened as All-Star Western.

As directed by Julius Schwartz, DC Comics revived a bunch of heroes, and like Green Lantern, Flash was started over from scratch by Robert Kanigher, John Broome, & Carmine Infantino. This time he was a police scientist named Barry Allen who was struck by lightning and splashed with chemicals, which also gave him super-speed. (In 1956, this seemed more plausible than inhaling hard water vapor. Ah, the march of science.) He took on his name from a comic book about the Jay Garrick Flash, an amusingly meta touch. Just as Garrick was a member of the Justice Society, Allen would join his fellow heroes in the Justice League of America. In 1959, Allen got a kid sidekick in Wally West, his teenage nephew by marriage, who had a similar accident to Allen’s, and who also got speed powers. He became Kid Flash, later joining other sidekicks in the Teen Titans.

In 1961, DC established “Earth 2,” where the Golden Age heroes all existed, with the Silver Age heroes interacting with them periodically in crossover events.

In 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman & George Pérez, the Earths were merged, and the history was changed so that Garrick was the first Flash, and Allen the second. But Allen also died in that historic miniseries, and West “graduated” from being Kid Flash to being Flash. DC gave West his own series, starting The Flash over at #1, and writer Mike Baron took a more scientific approach to the character in terms of his powers, with his successor William Messner-Loebs continuing that, and also dealing with West’s psychology, in particular his survivor’s guilt. West was established as having an absurd metabolism that forced him to consume huge amounts of calories in order to maintain his speed. The character of Tina McGee of long-established DC think tank S.T.A.R. Labs was created to help him deal with his powers.

Bilson and DeMeo merged the Allen and West Flashes for their TV show. He’s still named Barry Allen and he’s still a police scientist, but the heavy metabolism and the character of McGee were brought over from the West version. (The more recent versions portrayed by Grant Gustin and Ezra Miller also combine Allen and West in many ways.)

The big influence of the 1989 Tim Burton Bat-film is most evident in the look and sound of the show. Central City is very obviously influenced by the Art-Deco-on-speed designs of Burton’s Gotham City, as is the Flash costume, which is more latex muscle suit than skintight spandex. Plus Bat-composer Danny Elfman wrote the show’s theme music, with the music in the show provided by Elfman’s brilliant protégé, the late great Shirley Walker.

Soap opera veteran John Wesley Shipp was cast as Allen, with Amanda Pays (fresh off Max Headroom) as McGee, and Alex Désert as Allen’s fellow lab rat Julio Mendez. The trio would continue to star in the followup series. Also in this pilot are several supporting characters who would recur in the series: M. Emmet Walsh and Priscilla Pointer as Allen’s parents, Richard Belzer as Joe Kline (a tabloid TV journalist), Vito d’Ambrosio and Biff Manard as Bellows and Murphy (two uniformed cops who became the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the show), and Michael Nader as Nicholas Pike (a disgraced cop who leads a gang in several episodes, starting with this movie). Guest stars include Star Trek veterans Robert Hooks (Admiral Morrow in The Search for Spock) as Chief Cooper and Lycia Naff (Ensign Sonya Gomez in The Next Generation‘s “Q Who” and “Samaritan Snare“) as Pike’s girlfriend Lila, as well as Tim Thomerson as Allen’s brother Jay (his first name a tribute to the first Flash) and Paula Marshall as Allen’s girlfriend Iris West. Both Hooks and Marshall were intended to be recurring regulars, but Marshall was written out after the pilot, and Hooks’s role as the supervisory cop was taken over by the great Mike Genovese as Lieutenant Garfield.

The pilot cost six million dollars to make, and led to a series that, unfortunately, did not set the world on fire, despite some fun stories and some superb guest stars (Jason Bernard, Corinne Bohrer, Joyce Hyser, David Cassidy, Bill Mumy, Michael Champion, and the great Mark Hamill, auditioning for his definitive Joker as the Trickster in two episodes). It didn’t help that the show was on Thursday nights against a juggernaut NBC lineup anchored by The Cosby Show.

When a new Flash TV series debuted in 2014, Shipp was cast as Allen’s father, a nice little nod, and he has since also played the Jay Garrick Flash from an alternate Earth, and also reprised his role as this version of Barry Allen/The Flash (established as being from another alternate Earth). The newer show has also cast several folks from the 1990 series as alternate versions of their characters, including Pays as McGee, Désert as Mendez, and d’Ambrosio as Bellows from this pilot movie. (Manard sadly died in 2014, and so was unable to reprise Murphy.)

 

“I think you’ve been reading too many comic books”

The Flash
Written and produced by Danny Bilson & Paul DeMeo
Directed by Robert Iscove
Original release date: September 20, 1990

A motorcycle gang called the Dark Riders have been terrorizing Central City. The police have been unable to capture them. They’re led by a facially scarred man named Nicholas Pike. At one point a member wants out, and tries to convince his girlfriend Lila to come along. Lila instead betrays him to Pike, who kills him, to the cheers of the rest of the gang.

The Allen family holds a birthday party for the oldest son, Jay, who is a commander for the Motorcycle Squad of the Central City Police Department. His younger brother Barry is a criminalist, and their father Henry, a retired officer, makes it clear that he thinks Jay is real police, not some lab jockey like Barry. Jay comes to Barry’s defense, but Barry is obviously used to not being good enough for his father.

Barry is paged to a crime scene, and he asks Jay to take his girlfriend Iris West as well as Earl, his Golden Retriever, home. The scene is the Central City Armory, which the Dark Riders have trashed and robbed, giving them an even bigger arsenal than they had before.

Chief Cooper is interviewed on television by Joe Kline. Kline is skeptical with regard to the CCPD’s ability to curtail the Dark Riders, but Cooper assures him that they will stop the gang. The Dark Riders are watching the interview and laughing, while Barry and Julio Mendez are doing the same in the crime lab and working through the night to gather evidence.

As a storm brews, Barry sends Mendez home when he finds him asleep at his microscope. Barry sticks around, and a bolt of lightning from the storm shatters the window and strikes both a shelf full of chemicals and Barry, who is doused with chemicals and electrocuted.

Barry leaves the hospital against medical advice, and he later gets a phone call from his doctor that said one of the tests showed damage to his cellular structure. He sent the test results to S.T.A.R. Labs, which Barry isn’t thrilled about. S.T.A.R. has a bad rep.

When taking Earl for a walk in the park, the dog goes after someone’s baseball. Barry tries to rein him in, and then runs to catch up with him—only to burst with super-speed and crash into a big hedge. Both Barry and Earl are freaked out by this, especially since Barry is now incredibly hungry all the time.

Iris has an art installation opening, and Barry sleeps through it, and when he tries to get to the opening, he discovers a flat tire. He tries to run for the bus—and winds up halfway across town on the beach, his clothes torn and burned. He collapses on the beach, waking up long after the opening has ended. Iris is, justifiably, pissed.

When Christina McGee from S.T.A.R. calls, Barry actually welcomes the call, as he isn’t sure what’s wrong with him. She runs some tests—he breaks her treadmill—and she determines that his metabolism is super-charged. He also needs to eat a lot more, and has occasional drops where he gets the woozies.

Jay is made commander of Cooper’s new task force. Cooper plans to announce the task force at a press conference. The Dark Riders crash it, wounding Cooper and infuriating Jay. Later, the Dark Riders watch the footage of their attack, and Pike seems to have a particular animus toward Jay.

Mendez found a hair at one of the crime scenes, and the DNA turns up in the system: it’s Pike, who we learn from Barry is a disgraced cop. He was Jay’s partner, but Jay learned that he was dirty, and they had a confrontation on Highway 61 that left Pike badly scarred. Pike escaped from the prison hospital where he was being treated and is still on the loose.

Barry and McGee continue to test his powers, with McGee giving him with a red suit that provides insulation against the friction of his speed and regulates his body temperature. We also learn that McGee’s husband died due to experiments they were doing at S.T.A.R.—specifically he experimented on himself due to pressure from their superiors. For that reason, McGee is working with Barry on the down-low, not letting her bosses know about him, for fear that they will treat him like a lab rat rather than a person.

The Dark Riders ambush a convoy Jay is leading down Highway 61 (so I guess it’s Highway 61 revisited?), and Jay is killed. Barry is devastated, and angrily asks McGee to make a hood and gloves to match the insulated suit—the former to hide his identity visually, the latter to hide it scientifically so he won’t leave fingerprints. McGee is reluctant to help (she’s already lost one person she cares about), but she’d rather he went off and did something dangerous with her assistance than without it, so she agrees.

Barry, now disguised, messes with a convoy of Dark Riders (they seem to be carrying chemicals, I guess to make drugs?). Lila manages to stab him in the leg, but Barry’s actions have given the cops time to respond to their drive through the city, and several, including Lila, are arrested.

The next day at police headquarters, Barry (whose leg has completely healed overnight, yay metabolism!) convinces the detective in charge to let him talk to Lila for a minute. Out of respect for Jay, he’s allowed to, and Barry first scares her by assuring her that the “red demon” is real. She still won’t talk due to being more scared of Pike than she is of Barry. So Barry, remembering that he’s also a criminalist, asks the female cop guarding her for Lila’s clothes.

He and Mendez test them, as well as a plant found at another crime scene, and the only local place where soil found on her clothes and the plant are found together is an abandoned dam.

Barry goes there as the Flash and finds Jay’s good-luck charm (which Barry had borrowed years ago and given back to him as a birthday present earlier in the movie), but only a couple of Dark Riders. He also discovers that Pike is leading a group of Dark Riders to engage in a prison break.

Returning to police headquarters, Barry convinces Cooper that the prison break is happening. Cooper is skeptical—and pissed that Barry went into the field alone—but leads a bunch of cops to the prison.

Pike has taken over the prison, but the cops have it surrounded. However, the Flash is able to get onto the roof and take out the Dark Rider sentries up there, and then drop tear gas down the roof vents. This takes out most of the Dark Riders—but not Pike, who has the wherewithal to don a gas mask. He escapes, but Barry finds him—then loses him when he gets another case of the woozies.

However, he catches up to him eventually, rendering him insensate and tying him up, leaving him for the cops.

Barry makes it clear that he intends to keep fighting for justice as the Flash, and while McGee isn’t thrilled given how little they really know about what’s happened to him, she goes along with it.

And a hero is born.

 

“I’ll be there in a flash”

I loved this show when it first aired. This was an era when there was very little genre television around. You had Star Trek: The Next Generation in syndication, you had Alien Nation on FOX (which also only lasted a season), and you had reruns of The Adventures of Superman and the 1966 Batman, and that was about it. While the 1990s would bring a ton more SF/fantasy/comics shows to television, The Flash came at a time when the audience wasn’t exactly primed for it. (Putting it against NBC’s powerhouse Thursday didn’t help matters, though later moving it to Saturdays didn’t really help much.)

Which is too bad, as it was a charming little show. It fell a bit too much into the cutesy trap and often had slightly klutzy scripting, but when it was on, it was quite good. (The two episodes with Jason Bernard as Nightshade are especial highlights; ditto Mark Hamill’s two appearances as the Trickster.)

This movie in particular is a strong origin. I like that they kept Mike Baron’s use of the likely consequences of running fast all the time on one’s biology, and I especially like that they brought McGee over from the comics. Amanda Pays is always wonderful, and her chemistry with John Wesley Shipp is relaxed and delightful. (The same cannot be said for Shipp and the wooden Paula Marshall, whose Iris was never seen again after this.) It’s too bad that Tim Thomerson was specifically created to be killed to motivate Barry (sigh), as Shipp and Thomerson have excellent brotherly banter going on.

Shipp himself generally works. He’s much better when he’s being relaxed, friendly Barry—angry Barry is a bit out of his wheelhouse and he stiffens up when he’s pissed off, making that mode utterly unconvincing. (His “NOOOOO!” when he finds Jay’s body is just sad.) But overall, his Barry Allen is very good. And I’ve always liked Alex Désert—his easygoing charm fits nicely, making him a dandy sidekick. (I always wished they’d just let Mendez learn the truth, as he’d have been as useful in his own way as McGee.)

Also the music is stupendous. Between this and Batman: The Animated Series, I spent most of the 1990s desperately wanting Shirley Walker to write the incidental music for my life. Just brilliant.

The biggest problem with this movie is an issue that the series would luckily fix: a horrendous villain. Michael Nader could charitably be called awful in the role of Pike, and he ruins the entire pilot with his wooden shouting. Pike himself is also spectacularly uninteresting. A motorcycle gang that is able to run rings around a city police force like that is less than convincing, especially when the leader is this garbanzo. (Thankfully, the series would quickly embrace the notion of super-powered bad guys, or at least technologically advanced ones, giving us Captain Cold, Mirror Master, the Trickster, the Ghost, etc.)

Objectively, the still-running 2014 series is better in every measurable sense, but I find myself enjoying this version more. Part of that, I freely admit, is nostalgia (one shared by Greg Berlanti, et al, given how many callbacks to this series there have been in the new one). But this is also a forerunner of the 21st-century approach to comics adaptations, as this movie and followup series used several elements from the comics, which was not yet the norm for these adaptations. It deserves a lot of credit for that.

 

Next week, we look at another 1990s pilot for a DC TV series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is at Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle. Find him mostly at Bard’s Tower, Booth 1121, alongside a bunch of other authors, including Mercedes Lackey, Jonathan Maberry, Dan Wells, Brian McClellan, Larry Dixon, D.J. Butler, Cat Rambo, Michelle Cori, Peter Orullian, Kuta Marler, Michael Rothman, and Mario Acevedo, among others. Keith will also be doing panels on Star Wars (Saturday at 3pm) and Star Trek (Sunday at 2:45pm).

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