How 'Legends of Tomorrow' succeeds by playing to its strengths

DC's Legends of Tomorrow march into a fight
(Image credit: Warner Brothers)

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is a superhero show unlike any other, and as the series goes on, its unique, anything-can-happen format is the driving force behind the show. As season five closed, we lost and gained cast members and saw the team’s captain Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) kidnapped by literal aliens. This incredibly odd cliffhanger has led to a new season full of outrageous, wildly veering plots (and subplots). It doesn’t always make sense, but that’s part of the fun.

The CW

Legends of Tomorrow on The CW (Image credit: Legends of Tomorrow/The CW)

As superhero-based movies and TV have expanded their reach, fans have been introduced to more and more esoteric characters from the comic book vaults. The first episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow introduces us to characters like Firestorm (Franz Drameh), The Atom (Brandon Routh), and Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell). Don’t know their names? That’s okay - neither does anyone else, according to their time-traveling leader Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill). He’s seen the future, and while he starts out by enlisting people to the team via flattery that tells them they are destined to become great heroes, he quickly drops the charade and lets them know the more uncomfortable truth - history will forget about them entirely.

The very plot of the show tells us that these characters are B-List at best, which put the series in the unique position of making the audience care about a group of underdogs that history is predicted to forget entirely. What would you do if someone told you that you were doomed to make zero impact on the world? For these Legends, it provided them the challenge they needed to become better heroes, and it’s that sense of fighting against incredible odds across space and time that has made this one of the most surprisingly heartfelt TV shows on the air.

Jes Macallan, Olivia Swann and Tala Ashe in Legends of Tomorrow.

(Image credit: The CW)

At the ending of season five, the Legends of Tomorrow emerged victorious in its fight against Lachesis, breaking her cult-like influence over others and saying goodbye to fan favorite Charlie, who quits the team to follow her dreams of being a rockstar. Season six has jumped from that moment of off-kilter closure and turned it immediately into a full-out farce. The mostly hungover team drags itself together and realizes that it’s shy one captain — Sara Lance is missing, and while we know that she’s been abducted by aliens and taken off-world, the Legends don’t. They immediately engage in a search, but find anything but what they’re looking for.

Ava (Jes MacCallan) pulls herself together and focuses all of her attention on finding her now-kind-of-fiance (she discovers Sara was planning on proposing to her by watching a Super 8 video that David Bowie took the night before). Astra Logue (Olivia Swann), Zari Tarazi (Tala Ashe), and John Constantine (Matt Ryan) try to use magic to track Sara down to no avail. Meanwhile, Sara fights some aliens and ends up rocketing to a planet where she and her comic relief alien Gary (Adam Tsekhman) run into none other than a stranded Amelia Earhart and her cute dog. Naturally, none of this is as it seems, and Sara and Gary continue to fight to find their way back to Earth.

As always, Legends of Tomorrow succeeds by keeping a fast pace. Its balance between emotional gut punches and zany hijinks always feels a little precarious, but by constantly moving on to the next thing, it keeps its many plates spinning. The silliness of the alien abduction is counterbalanced by Ava’s heartbreaking reaction when she watches Sara talk about proposing to her, knowing that it may never come to be.

Leaning into absurd sci-fi tropes against a backdrop of compelling character beats is how Legends keeps us at the edge of our seats. The team has changed drastically over the last few seasons, but they don’t hesitate to show up for their missing friend. New addition Spooner (Lisseth Chavez) has incredible chemistry with the others, and adds a level of realism to the outlandish mission they find themselves on as they search for Sara. Tender sibling moments between Behrad (Shayan Sobhian) and Zari are counterbalanced against genuinely goofy moments like a fast food restaurant that serves sentient secret sauce and an alien crushed against the ship’s windshield like a bug.

Jes Macallan and Lisseth Chavez in Legends of Tomorrow's "Meat: The Legends"

(Image credit: The CW)

From its inception, Legends of Tomorrow has been about giving lesser-known characters their time in the sun. Bringing in a handful of differently-motivated heroes and antiheroes to face off against major threats as predicted by the mysterious Time Bureau, the series immediately made for compelling personality clashes and kinships between its central cast simply by choosing such an eclectic mix of characters. Some had previously appeared in the CW superhero universe; for instance, The Atom and Sara Lance first appeared via Arrow, but their characters are truly given the chance to shine on Legends.

Likewise, Legends of Tomorrow has never failed to live up to the comic book kookiness of its concept. Each character has a complicated, improbable-sounding origin story full of dramatic revelations, and the format allows for the series to pull characters from all across the timeline. The limitless potential of a team of dimension-hopping antiheroes doesn’t go to waste as we’re introduced to complicated clones, hackers from the future, immortal supervillains, a whole organization of time cops, and, of course, one rakishly charming British occultist turned detective.

Hopping through major historical events has allowed for writers to drop a revolving cast in improbable new scenarios episode after episode, keeping them on their toes and allowing for the outlandish, sometimes-heartbreaking, sometimes-hilarious sci-fi sincerity of the series to land. Though characters come and go, none of them are unchanged by their time on the team, which makes Legends a story about personal growth just as much as it is about time-traveling superheroes.

Legends has been providing fascinating character arcs for all its last many seasons. As off-the-rails as the series gets, the characters never feel anything less than genuine. The rotating cast means that cast members will inevitably come and go, but rather than allowing that to be a hindrance, Legends has turned that into its greatest strength. As we delve into season six, it’s hard to say where exactly we’re going, but Legends of Tomorrow has never had a problem making sure we have a lot of fun along the way.

Sara Century started writing through personal and music zines and pretty much just ran with it. She loves a lot of things, including but not limited to pets, comics, museums, libraries, and horror novels. She's the co-host of the podcast Bitches On Comics and the co-founder of the Decoded Pride queer speculative fiction anthology. 

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