As a jaded comic book asshole, I wasn’t expecting much from The Flash TV show. I’d been hurt by comic book adaptations before. But this show does have a surprisingly original take on an age-old tropes.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, Barry Allen is a nerdy scientist granted extraordinary speed powers by scientific accident, who’s in love with a pretty girl who doesn’t know he’s the Flash. This may sound familiar because it’s the plot of a good 50% of comic book adaptations.
In this particular type of fantasy, an intelligent (nerdy) young man lacks the ability to effect change in his personal life—most often to defeat his bully and to attract the girl. Fortunately he acquires supernatural abilities. Using these powers he defeats his enemy, acts in accordance with his morality, and gets the girl. His powers are often an explicit symbol for power (see “with great power”, etc.);
Tobey learns an important lesson about the friendzone!
impotence (physical and romantic) is replaced by the ‘power’ to do anything he wants. It should further be noted that this upgrade to obscene amounts of power serves as a catalyst for positive qualities he already possesses—like leadership, determination, or a passion for justice—just granting him the ability to act on those latent qualities.
This narrative is a kind of makeover story, in the sense that most makeover stories relent their insistence on superficiality and simperingly conclude that “being yourself was good enough the whole time.” To be satisfying, the conclusion must be that not only is the superhero persona good, desirable, and powerful, but that your average joe-shoe is, too—perhaps even more so than the superhero alter-ego.
The problem1 with this narrative is that it has a payoff akin to that of eating McDonald’s food. It briefly feels really really good, and hits exactly the right spots, but does this almost too well. Its generic flavour leaves your palette with nothing to mull over, and drives the point across by overloading your senses with one taste. Consider the emotional payoff of this scene: the Flash reveals himself to Iris as a giant tsunami threatens New York (oops, I meant Central City). Cue pounding, dramatic music.
But, you might ask, isn’t this just part of the nature of superhero comics? Yes, partly. But people still think McDonald’s is objectively crappy, even if it is undeniably a type of food 2.
The Flash perfectly embodies some narrative qualities of this fantasy. While day-to-day Barry Allen is a kind, geeky young man friendzone 3d by his childhood friend Iris, the Flash is a macho guy with a deep voice who is mysterious, powerful, and cracks no jokes (jokes are for nerds). The Flash’s flirtation with Iris is always a little bit in earnest: the chemistry between the two is palpable. Iris’ eyes shine with a passion not present in her scenes with her longterm boyfriend, Eddie.
There are obligatory scenes of her gasping with astonishment while the Flash moves to rooftops and things. She asks him who he his; he, of course, acts manfully mysterious. These scenes are the setup for the McDonald’s payoff in the Tsunami scene.
But the Flash also undermines this trope in some brilliant ways, at least before its glimmerings of greatness are buried beneath generic flip-flopping. The show makes the potential romantic arc between Superhero and love interest a lot more messy than it typically is.
First of all, their relationship is at least a little incesty. They’re adoptive siblings, which adds an almost imperceptible element of discomfort to their flirtation and inevitable romance. Furthermore, Iris and Barry act creepy in their regular, day-to-day lives—she flirts with her adoptive brother to the discomfort of everyone, including Eddie. And Eddie’s a pretty nice dude, making these scenes an uncomfortable experience.
Iris’ physical flirtation with Barry and jealousy over his date place her in uncomfortable ethical territory: she provokes accusations of ‘friendzoning’, sets up expectations about female agency, and is creepily inappropriate. The weirdest example is when both Iris and Barry leave wounded Eddie’s side to partake in costumed flirtation in the hallway, mere metres from his hospital bed. Mutual immorality prevents the potential union of Barry and Iris from being totally neat, clean, and satisfying to watch, already poisoning the picture-perfect template laid out by prior superhero media.
The show exaggerates the space between Barry Allen and his persona as the Flash. It’s clear that the two are not only different kinds of people, but that it’s actually unhelpful for Barry to be behaving in accordance with comic book masculinity. The penultimate episode ‘Rogue Air’ makes a point of critiquing Barry’s attempts to emulate his idol/friend, the Arrow4. Barry’s reckless behaviour is not in line with his unique personality and the things that make him a great hero, serving as a vague acknowledgment that creepy, hyper-masculine behaviour isn’t what is wanted or needed to do the job. Sometimes, masculinity is antithetical to it.
It proves antithetical to romance too: while under the influence of an emotion-manipulating metahuman 5, the Flash takes his stalking to the next level by beating Eddie up while Iris looks on.
While throwing Eddie around, Barry screams “Who the hell are you, huh? You think you can just come along and get to have whatever you want? What gives you the right? 6”. He is, of course, referring to the fact that Eddie—mentioned to be a ‘jock’ type in a previous episode—is dating Iris. Part of what’s scary here is that Eddie isn’t a mean jock; he’s just a pleasant guy doing his job, who happens to be in love with Iris. But in his altered state, Barry maps these comic book tropes onto the people he loves and the people he dislikes, resulting in Eddie’s near-hospitalization. Barry’s frustration over his romantic situation, and his position on a perceived social hierarchy where Eddie represents the position of ‘jock’—both hallmarks of the stereotypical nerd storyline—are exposed as potentially violent impulses.
And rather than interpreting The Flash’s outburst as a manful spectacle of comic book awesomeness, Iris kicks him to the curb. Where before she entertained his swooshing around on rooftops, she tells him to leave her alone—which is what a sensible person would do 7.
Just to be clear, I don’t think Barry is a bad person 8. I don’t think he did it on purpose, and I don’t think he’s entirely responsible for what happened to Eddie. He was, after all, under the influence of a criminal metahuman. But I think that the show presents some surprisingly reasonable hitches to what is normally a smooth tale of nerd ascendance to power.
In typical comic-book media, the conclusion to Barry’s flirtation with Iris is a foregone conclusion. The Flash reveals himself to Iris during the tsunami (remember that tsunami?); Iris confesses her feelings, they kiss passionately, and Barry runs off to save the world. But then Barry travels back in time and prevents the disaster from happening.
Time manipulation as a device can get really boring and meaningless in comic books, because it allows for things to be undone—meaning that death and life can be rendered meaningless, as anyone can be resurrected or un-killed. But in The Flash, Barry’s time travel means that in the past, he’s aware of Iris’ future declaration of love for him. Because he knows the future, Barry expects romantic success with Iris 9.
But in the universe of The Flash, the future is malleable. When Barry confronts Iris in the past because of what he knows about the future 10, he misreads her; outside of the tsunami situation, she isn’t prepared to admit her feelings for Barry, or to leave Eddie for him. This is an important point: even when the future says Iris should date Barry, her present self is under no obligation to do so.
Iris’ changeability adds dimension to relationships in the show. It suggests love is situational, and that people change from day to day. The Iris who declared love for Barry was under a very different set of conditions than the one sitting opposite him in the coffeeshop of an alternate future. It’s reasonable to assume she would have different feelings and responses to him when they’re not standing under a giant tsunami. The Flash paints a surprisingly humanizing portrait of human potentiality, with time functioning as a metaphor and catalyst for revelations about nerd entitlement. The show prepares a narrative meal with some of the instant gratification of stereotypical TV adaptations, one that also contains other puzzling flavours.
Its protagonist fail the ultimate masculinity litmus test—Iris decides both Barry and the Flash are not for her. And this is a really exciting thing to see on TV; a rejection of toxic tropes, a chance for characters to grow outside of the cookie-cutter they were spawned in. The stereotypical nerd narrative is one which poisons real men and their interactions with women, forming some of the logic behind real-life crimes perpetrated against women. Tropes like these feed the most insidious elements of nerd culture, part of a culture in which women’s consent, bodies, and sexuality are presumed to be owed to men. Demolishing these poisonous tropes in a mainstream TV show would feel like christmas come early.
But obviously, we can’t have nice things. Instead of leaving lil’ sad friendzoned Barry to deal with the fallout of his semi-incestuous crush by reflecting on his sense of entitlement, the show tries to get as much mileage out of the love triangle as possible by resurrecting it several times. The friends discover that in the future, an article is written by someone named ‘Iris West-Allen’, which totally obviously means Barry is back in the game and Eddie backs off. Except WAIT, he’s not backing off? Love triangle is go. And so on and so forth. This, of course, strips Iris’ choice—Eddie over Barry—of all credibility, rendering her potentiality a mere plot device rather than a commentary on nerd entitlement, female agency, and the nature of relationships.
In the end, The Flash is still the comic book equivalent of McCafé. They’re trying, though they’re still cashing in on some pretty generic and uninteresting recipes.
1 More like ONE problem
2 Actually, there’s some debate on this point
3 I don’t believe in this. i’m being sarcastic
4 An astonishingly boring Batman wannabe
5 “Nice guys finish last!”
6 Sorry, nerds. if you beat up her boyfriend she’s not going to go out with you
7 He’s actually a genuinely good person who deals pretty effectively with rejection.
8 it’s almost like the show is making a meta-point about nerd awareness of the metaphorical nerd narrative!