Movies & TV

411 Comics Showcase – The Flash

June 17, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

“What’s so cool about a guy who can run really fast?”

All superheroes are essentially power fantasies: physical power (Hulk, Superman), intellectual power (Batman, Iron Man), spiritual power (Doctor Strange, Constantine), sexual power (Wonder Woman, She-Hulk), the power to fight against persecution (the X-Men), or to explore space (Green Lantern), underwater (Aquaman) or across dimensions (The Fantastic Four). Superheroes are either born with or acquire great power, and must find out how to use it. Peter Parker could use his spider powers to fight back against the bullies in his high school, but focuses it on New York’s criminals, superpowered or otherwise. Thor could have people worship him as a god, but usually serves people instead of the other way around. Power and what to do with it is the connective theme of superhero comics.

The Flash, whether it’s Barry Allen or Wally West, embodies the fantasy to manipulate time. Yes, the Flash runs really fast, but so does Quicksilver from Marvel. Here’s the difference; Pietro Maximoff caps off at just past the speed of sound (767.269 mph). Pretty fast. Flash can easily move faster than the speed of light (670,616,629 mph, or 1.02 billion km/h). So, while Quicksilver runs fast, the Flash moves and fights incomparably fast, leaving most other competitors in the dust.

This isn’t meant to bury Quicksilver, but more to illustrate a point. Pietro is a mutant (shut up, yes he is and I won’t be convinced otherwise!), and part of a team, and as such his powers are generally more limited, so as not to limit the comparative usefulness of others on the team. Unless he’s in a Bryan Singer movie, but I digress. The point is; Quicksilver’s speed is more incidental, an ability that allows him to fight. He’s part of the X-Men universe and is mostly fighting for his place in the world.

But the Flash and his stories all directly relate to speed and time. This is the core idea of the Flash as a character. For the purposes of this column, I’ll be focusing on Barry Allen. Wally West and his stories carry similar themes, but there is a little more to unpack there than there is with Barry. Allen is my favorite character to be the Flash, and probably the one most familiar with current audiences.

Barry Allen was just a forensic scientist working at the Central City Police Department. He was intelligent and served a vital role, but ultimately the job never stops people fast enough. At the basest level, becoming the Flash allows Barry to actively fight crime and solve problems faster, making his city safer. But it also allows him to do other things, such as join the Justice League, battle telepathic gorilla kings, and travel through time.

Being the Fastest Man Alive forces Barry (and the audience) to ask questions. “What do I do now that I can outrun bullets, be anywhere in a matter of seconds, and travel through time?” What if you could save everyone from an explosion or a crazy shooter? What if you could go back in time and stop something horrible from ever happening? What is the responsible way to handle that power?

In this way, the Flash is very similar to Doctor Who? and poses a lot of the same questions. If someone could travel through time, would it be responsible to try and stop tragedies from happening? Or would the incredible lack of foresight about how things would change make it too risky to consider? Would it be safe to change some events, but not others?

While there are certainly similarities to the Doctor (as well as other time-travel stories like Back to the Future), there are some key differences. The Doctor is usually portrayed as a wise old man, with a greater appreciation for the scope of the actions he takes (see also: Doctor Emmett Brown). The Doctor’s companions usually serve as the audience surrogates, asking the questions about time travel that we are asking (see also: Marty McFly). Since the younger, more reckless characters are more likely to screw things up accidentally, the older, wiser characters usually have the power to actually execute any time travel.

But the Flash is usually filling both roles; he has the power and the knowledge to execute time-travel, but doesn’t necessarily have the full perspective of what his actions might cause. Sure, he might be able to save his mother from being killed, but he also has the power to create an alternate reality in which Bruce Wayne’s father becomes a gun-toting Batman, and then the whole DC Universe reboots. Thanks Barry.

Barry is someone who has awesome power, and he has enough intelligence and adaptability to learn how to use it responsibly. But he also has to figure things out by making mistakes at times, and his mistakes can have pretty far-reaching consequences. I sometimes compare him to an older version of Spider-Man; his heart is in the right place and he does good most of the time, but the temptation to use his power selfishly is always there.

While time travel is well within Flash’s wheelhouse and has led to some very interesting stories, it is almost always shown to be a bad idea. Time (and speed) are forces that are outside of man’s understanding and shouldn’t be meddled with, and the results are rarely good. I think the true value of having these capabilities is that Flash very rarely uses them. Knowing when to use your power is important, but it’s arguably even more important to know when you shouldn’t use them.

What is Barry’s usual reaction to having these great powers? He doesn’t look back or stay trapped in the past; he moves forward. After all, what else would a running man do?

Barry Allen is one of my favorite comic book heroes, and his outlook on life is the primary reason. I think all of us have moments of regret, things we might change if we could, whether they are small and personal or grander in scope. There is value on reflecting on the past, but the value is learning from our mistakes so that we can affect our future in more positive ways. Even if we have the power to change the past (like the Flash), it isn’t healthy. The only way to progress, to heal, to grow is move forward one step at a time.

Even if I do wish I could move a little faster.

Here’s That Other Column I Write!

With Michael Ornelas that is. From Under A Rock sees Michael and I expose each other to new movies on alternating weeks. Last week, I introduced Michael to Chinatown. This week, Michael helps me take the plunge into Jaws, a movie that I’m now furious I missed while I was growing up.

Next week, I’m taking a break from talking about comics and comic book movies to discuss Star Wars: The Force Awakens and how I feel about it six months later, now that we are away from all of the hype.