Legends of Tomorrow and Doom Patrol are the two most imaginative superhero properties currently available, in an era where comic book adaptation are everywhere, on TV and in the theaters. Both series are spin-offs of other shows and deal with less-than-perfect people with abilities forced to come together as a group to face evil. Though the two shows deal with camp, they do so in very different ways.
Where other superhero shows like Daredevil, Arrow, and even The Flash (which started as a fun alternative to the incredibly angsty Arrow) all turned into character dramas that focused on the toll of being a superhero, Legends of Tomorrow dared have its characters be hypnotized by a possessed nipple in one episode and have a Furby-like giant fight a demon in another. When DC launched its own subscription service, its first live-action show was teased with a Robin so gritty his motto has become “F*** Batman.” When Doom Patrol followed it up, it used the dark and gritty tone of Titans to provide grounded and emotional character development, while still giving us a make-out session between a giant cockroach and a giant rat.
Legends of Tomorrow lets its characters have fun
Originally thought of as a spin-off for Ray Palmer/The Atom (Brandon Routh), Legends of Tomorrow started as a sort of lifeboat, taking characters who had outlived their usefulness on Arrow and The Flash, and giving them a time machine to go off on adventures. Though the first season was noticeably still a spin-off of the Arrow-verse and it mostly adhered to the same darker tone, by the time season two began, the Legends creative team embraced the weirdness of the show’s premise.
From Season 2 on, the writers started throwing every weird idea and the kitchen sink at the audience while still somehow making sense. Season 2 dealt with the Legends fighting of the Legion of Doom, who were trying to find the biblical Spear of Destiny that pierced the side of Jesus (really), while Season 4 introduced demons and an amusement park for magical creatures.
Because of the liberties that come with time travel, and a lack of a fixed cast due to it not being based off any established property, Legends of Tomorrow has been able to freely use any character from Arrow or The Flash and add them to their roster. From the original team, only Routh, Caity Lotz (as Sara Lance/White Canary) and Dominic Purcell (as Mick Rory/Heat Wave) remain on the show. Characters come and go every season, adding versatility to the show since they don’t run out of stories to tell with the characters, with Kid Flash and later Constantine joining the team for a while. Even the original three have grown since their introduction– – most notably, Mick has become a science-fiction erotic romance novelist.
Beyond an ever-rotating cast, Legends of Tomorrow is different from other superhero shows by embracing the insignificance of its leading characters. In the very first episode, Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) says he chose the Legends because of how inconsequential they are to history, so no matter what they did or what happened to them, no one would care–a sharp contrast to the Green Arrow working with the police department, or The Flash getting a parade in Central City.
Legends of Tomorrow uses the extraneousness of its heroes to test their heroism. Though they still triumph at the end, the Legends create more problems with their little mess ups along the way than they can fix. By Season 3, the Legends have messed up so many times that they literally broke time itself. It got so bad Rip Hunter helped create an entire government branch to deal with the Legends and their “time aberrations” (like Gorilla Grodd from killing Barack Obama when he was in college). But usually, they created more problems in the process, like dropping Helen of Troy off in Themyscira instead of Greece.
This constant breaking of eggs to make a semi-decent omelet is the show’s greatest strength. Unlike Arrow or The Flash, which use the failures of their heroes for drama, Legends of Tomorrow mines those failures for comedy–as well as character growth. Even in an episode where Constantine tries to change the past to save a loved one, breaking the timeline and going through scenarios as weird as having the entire team turned into singing puppets, the show still finds the time to have Constantine learn to bond with the team and accept his failures.
Doom Patrol isn’t afraid to let you laugh and cry
Like Legends of Tomorrow, Doom Patrol started as a spin-off of the gritty, brooding, and ridiculously violent Titans. Though it did feature some moments of levity, Titans explored some dark themes and featured the goriest and most brutal fight sequences on a superhero TV show to date. It was, therefore, kind of a surprise when the first episode of Doom Patrol premiered, and it featured a skywriting-farting donkey that is actually a doorway to another dimension. Like Titans, Doom Patrol doesn’t shy away from some dark themes, but it does that while also giving us such bonkers scenes as a giant eye in the sky that disintegrates people à la Thanos, or a superhero flexing the wrong muscle and accidentally giving everyone on the team and a literal sentient street an orgasm.
Doom Patrol also plays with the audience’s expectations for what a superhero family is. The characters certainly look like they have abilities of some kind, but there’s nothing heroic about them. The first episode goes through the origin story for the entire team, focusing on how dysfunctional and broken they all were even before getting powers.
Former ace pilot Larry Trainor/Negative Man (Matt Bomer) has an immortal negative energy spirit that burned his body in radiation now living inside him, but his closeted homosexuality broke him long before the radiation did. Rita Farr (April Bowlby) was a major film star that already struggled with her identity and the ways the studio system of the Golden Age of Hollywood turned artists into monsters way before she was forced into hiding after an accident turned her into a giant blob of flesh. Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) suffers from dissociative identity disorder as a result of an abusive childhood and now has 64 different personas, each with their own superpower–eat that, James McAvoy. Likewise, Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser) may be angry and resentful for being just a brain inside a robot body, but his rage and self-hatred started long before the accident that killed his wife and destroyed his body. Before they can save anyone, the characters must learn to cope with their past trauma.
The series acknowledges that you can’t fully heal from your trauma, but instead has the team aspire to heal just enough to be able to live with their own demons for another day. Larry can’t fully reclaim what he lost in the accident that ruined his life, but we see him start to make peace with his past and embrace who he is through a karaoke session while at a cabaret inside a sentient genderqueer street named Danny. The scene is completely bonkers, yet it doesn’t feel out of place. After all, this is a show that spends as much time inside our protagonists’ psyches as it does with disembodied butts with legs that eat people or the aforementioned mass orgasm on a sentient street. By the end of the first season, the Doom Patrol isn’t yet a fully-fleshed team, but they’re on the way to accept what has happened to them and finally move on.
Plenty of superhero shows and movies try to cram in as many jokes as possible, even interrupting the crucial emotional scenes for the sake of a joke. Legends of Tomorrow and Doom Patrol prove that you can not only do scenes that are simply cuckoo bananas and make you cry with laughter, but you don’t have to do that at the expense of character development.
When people talk about “superhero fatigue” they usually refer not to the big amount of superhero movies and TV shows that are coming out all the time, as much as to how similar they’re becoming. As the Marvel Netflix shows all became very similar in story and tone, and the Arrowverse is basically just one gigantic entity, we need more TV shows and movies that show how versatile the genre at giving us emotional stories at the same time as singing superhero puppets and cockroaches making out with rats. Legends of Tomorrow and Doom Patrol are not only the two most fun superhero shows out there, but they also show us what the genre is capable of.