Whatever Happened to “The Fastest Man Alive”?

Wherefore Art Thou, Barry Allen?

Even though I’m not one of those fans who clings, screaming, to the first season of The Flash like it’s my parent abandoning me on my first day of school, I agree with the general consensus that the first season of the show was its best. Why it was the best varies depending on who you ask, but for me, one of the reasons was that in the first season The Flash was about Barry.

In the first season, we are introduced to Barry Allen, a CSI for the Central City Police Department who spent all of his free time looking for the “impossible” in order to find enough evidence to free his father Henry (John Wesley Shipp) from prison after he was falsely charged with murdering his wife. He was in love with his best friend, Iris, made all the more complicated by the fact that her father Joe (Jesse L. Martin), Barry’s superior at work, took him in as a child. When Barry gains speed powers from a freak accident, he uses them both to help people and to try to solve the mystery of his mother’s murder. Over the first season and the following two, we watch him grow, mature, regress (hey, nobody’s perfect), and learn the lessons that we all know superheroes have to in order to be their best selves. And even though there were missteps (a running joke in my house is that season 3 was actually just an excuse to get Grant Gustin and Candice Patton to cry a lot), the show never let you lose sight of who Barry Allen was, what he wanted, and what he stood to lose from battling these villains.

Which brings me to the first problem: Barry Allen has been lost, swallowed up completely by his Flash persona and his position as the leading metahuman on the team. Oh, sure, Barry is still the centre of the show, but his growth as a person stopped about a season and a half ago. Instead of driving the narrative, he’s wandering around aimlessly in it, shoved into whichever purpose the show needs for that particular episode while whatever emotional arc he had is either only vaguely hinted at or non-existent. Once upon a time the show was adept at making sure the two journeys were connected; now, they barely bother.

*sighs longingly*

After all, who is Barry outside of The Flash? Where is the scientist who made awful and adorable jokes? We’ll elaborate on this later, but the show has all but done away with the fact that Barry Allen is supposed to be one of the most scientific minds in the DC universe. Where is the CSI who would, one day, become head of his department? Not only has Barry stopped going to work, only making cameos there whenever the plot calls for it, but the show has stopped giving him the semblance of a life outside The Flash altogether. What, if anything, does Barry want for his life? Where does he, Barry, not The Flash, see himself in the next five years? What does he want to have left behind? The show has hinted at things that Barry will become – CSI Director, founder of the Justice League, father – but it has done a poor job of showing how much he actually wants them and what he’s going to do to get them, instead apparently certain that when it’s Season 8 and Barry suddenly turns up with a fancy plaque and his own office, we’re all going to just accept it. We’ve been told what he’s going to be, so we should all assume that he wants it.

And like I said, this isn’t simply a one-season problem, but a problem across the series. Barry is a character on a television show, but motivation is what makes a character feel three-dimensional, and that’s what drew viewers to him from the very first episode. Without that, he is simply another character who has a villain that must be defeated – especially on a show that has metahumans coming out of its ears. Compare the first season with this one, for example. Barry wanted to defeat the Reverse-Flash to get his father out of prison. He wanted Iris. And he wanted to be able to move on from a night that had defined him for fourteen years. All of those wants gave him depth and a journey. This season, Barry wants…to defeat the Cicadas. But this is a superhero show and everyone wants to defeat the villain; that doesn’t make him special. He wants to be a father to Nora (Jessica Parker Kennedy), his daughter from the future, as he’s learned that he’ll disappear after her birth. But he’s doing that already, and moreover, he’s doing absolutely nothing to stop his death in the future so that he will get to keep being a parent to her. He’s not even really acknowledging it anymore. In fact, he doesn’t even seem connected to the villain, who has no specific reason to target Barry and has done nothing to feel like more than a generic villain who Barry needs to put away because that’s his job. And the same thing happened last season.

Barry is completely indistinguishable from the other characters, because his personal objective is a team objective. Or, harking back to my original point: The Flash has swallowed up Barry Allen as a character, because Barry’s only goal is The Flash’s goal. He exists merely as the leader of a superhero team, not a man who has wants and goals outside of it. In the first season we saw that The Flash was nothing without Barry Allen, which is true; without him as the emotional centre; the heroism feels hollow.

Which segues neatly onto my next point: despite being the lead character, Barry isn’t actually the hero of the show anymore. He’s just the fastest one and the one wearing red. He doesn’t drive the action. He doesn’t come up with the plans. And when the plan happens, he inevitably falls over and stares gormlessly at the villain, forgetting that he is supposed to be the fastest man alive as he watches them walk away. Rather than The Flash, the show feels like it should be called The League of Very Definitely Not Extraordinary Metahumans, because the show’s bizarre insistence that absolutely everything must be a team effort means that three of the four metahumans must fail so that one can win.

I mentioned that Barry is supposed to become a CSI Director, build Gideon, an artificially intelligent computer, and one day found the Justice League. With the Barry Allen we have right now, none of those things are even remotely possible. Despite being in his fifth year as The Flash, Barry isn’t even the smartest person on his own team – nor is he the most capable or the most skilled. He can do nothing by himself, and constantly needs to be told what to do even when the answer is inevitably always run…faster. Unlike his comic book counterpart, he can neither build his own suits or his own gadgets. In fact, despite the fact that Season 4 went to great lengths to show that Barry had emerged from the Speed Force even faster than ever, he’s actually regressed as a superhero, doesn’t understand the mechanics of his own powers, and generally needs his hand held before he can do anything. All of this to ensure that Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker), Cisco (Carlos Valdes), and whoever Tom Cavanaugh is playing have something to do. How do we know this? Well, because whenever Barry isn’t surrounded by scientists (e.g. his prison arc or even the evil future version of himself, who defeated Team Flash so thoroughly it was embarrassing), the show remembers that Barry is a genius.

Why are they doing my boy like this?!

Again, all we have to do is look at this season. Barry just stands around waiting to be told what to do, before failing and letting Cicada get away so they can try again next week. The “key” to stopping Cicada is Killer Frost, Caitlin’s alter-ego, yet she and the team as a whole have let Cicada get away on several occasions. Most embarrassingly, Sherloque, a character who has only been around for one season, not only explains the Speed Force (a place Barry has been to at least three times), he also understands the language. The only reason we know he’s the star is because he does the opening monologue; in actuality, Barry is just another member of the team.

Quite simply, there is nothing special about Barry anymore. He loses more fights than he wins, and more often than not (which we’ll get to), other characters win at his expense to justify their presence. He’s been unforgivably nerfed so that the plot works and so other characters remain relevant, but it just makes him look like the fastest loser alive. The Flash may have swallowed Barry Allen whole, but that doesn’t mean he’s doing anything interesting.

I do have to point out that there are some fans who think that The Flash has become “The Iris West Show.” After acknowledging my first instinct that those fans probably just don’t like seeing a Black woman as the leading lady of a superhero show, I considered it. And I’ve decided that’s what I want. Think about it – a show about Iris West would definitely need Barry Allen because they’re an iconic couple, which means I’d get his emotional journey as well as hers. Iris is a journalist, which means that all of the science and plans would be his responsibility alone. It would also mean scenes of him and Iris investigating, especially in his capacity as a CSI. Iris isn’t a metahuman, which means that Barry would actually get to be the superhero, and wouldn’t have to be nerfed so Iris can shine. They’d be in a relationship, which means that I’d get to hear what Barry’s goals were and what he wanted out of life. Maybe, since Wally is Iris’ brother in this continuity, I could get some more Flashes running around – and hopefully secure some victories so Barry’s speed doesn’t look like an informed ability. Ironically, an Iris West show would give me more Barry Allen than what the alleged Barry Allen show is giving me now.

But I shouldn’t have to hope for an entirely different show just to get what I want. And even though an Iris West show would give me what I want in terms of two of my favourite characters (which we’ll get to), this show is about Barry Allen. The show would do well to remember who their lead is – and this isn’t a knock on Gustin, who does the best with what he’s given, but there’s only so much you can do when all that’s required of you is to ask questions and fall down a lot.

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