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The Flash - The Flash Reborn - Review: "New Version of Flash Available"

Hey everyone - with a new season, The Flash has a new reviewer, as Pablo decided to step down after season three. 

The Flash is back! It's a refrain that Cisco joyfully utters towards the end of this fourth season premiere, but it's also as good a mission statement for this new year of adventures in Central City as you're going to get. For many, The Flash has spent a long time wandering down the wrong path, away from the lightness and joy that defined the show's seminal first season and towards darkness and brooding, culminating in the gloomy 'save Iris' arc in season three that saw every character unravel into their worst selves (sometimes more literally than others).

We were promised a lighter tone and simpler stories time and time again in pre-release promotion for the season, something that seemed hard to envisage given the dark cliffhanger to season three. The Flash Reborn's job, then, is to right the ship and take things back to where they began, joining A to B and setting up a sustainable foundation for the lighter season that was promised. Maybe there's too many figures of speech there, but you get the idea. This was as close as The Flash is going to get to a reboot.

The results are, as you'd expect, a little mechanical at times. It's hard not to see the gears of the story whirring and clunking here, as The Flash races towards restoring its status quo, because The Flash Reborn's dramatic intentions are so utterly obvious for anyone to see. In fact, there's a strange undercurrent to this premiere of apology. It's almost like the fifth season premiere of Community, which, in restoring the original season one status quo pretty much told the audience to ignore what Dan Harmon called the 'gas leak year'.

Every aspect of this premiere seems calibrated precisely to steer away from season three, even if that means quietly ignoring or smoothing over a lot of the set-up established in the last season finale. None of the characters introduced in season three really factor in - Julian is 'back in London', Tracy is AWOL, the deceased HR and Savitar get a cursory mention each, and Killer Frost seems to be gone until the final scene. Even last year's character arc of Barry as a man defined by pain and suffering is quietly swept away. The Flash Reborn, in essence, is all about telling us to ignore the gas leak year, and to move on.

That doesn't make for the most graceful storytelling, but it's something the show ultimately needed to do. The Flash Reborn is absolutely right to pivot the show back into lighter territory, and holds a huge amount of promise for the season to come in the stories it sets up, much more so than the overambitious premiere last year. And while it takes some narrative shortcuts to get to the end, the journey is still plenty engaging, with some solid and involving character development and rejigging of the show's ensemble.

One of the key grumbles about this episode, and one that deserves consideration, is that it doesn't really spend enough time in the post-Barry status quo before firing Chekhov's Speed Force bazooka and bringing him back. It's not unreasonable, to be honest, because what we do get in those first 10-15 minutes is genuinely fun and fresh, enough to make you wish there was more of it. The opening set-piece with Kid Flash and Vibe racing to take down Peek-A-Boo is visually striking, but also has a different rhythm to it than the usual Barry vs. villain fight scenes - the heroes are scrappier, more prone to mistakes, and therefore heavily reliant on de-powered assists from Joe and Iris to get the job done.

They're just as eager as Barry ever was (and a lot more care-free, as shown by Wally and Cisco's quippy response to the Samuroid) but much less experienced, and that provides a fun dynamic that has to be cleared away quite quickly so Barry can be brought back. It's a shame, because Keiynan Lonsdale and Carlos Valdes are evidently enjoying the hell out of the chance to be Central City's main heroes, even if it's necessary for the story - an example of overall plotting machinations winning out over the micro stuff, the character interactions that make The Flash what it is.

Here's hoping there's another chance for Team Kid Flash to take flight during the season, even now the main man himself is back. After all, there's not much of a place for Wally if Barry is an all-powerful hero, and Wally's lack of exposure once Barry returns is a signifier that he'll need individual stories to avoid becoming extraneous this season.

There's also a key part of Team Kid Flash (typing it really makes me realise that Cisco was right about there being too many syllables) that's very important, and that's Iris. It's her journey, on the whole, that forms the emotional core of The Flash Reborn, and certainly counts as its most compelling character story. As virtually every female lead is in superhero stories, Iris is a polarising character, but I think a lot of that has more been the show's handling of her, nudging her into passive, boilerplate love interest stories that don't give Candice Patton enough to work with and make her seem like a drag on the show. When Iris actually gets the spotlight, as she does in The Flash Reborn, she's a genuinely engaging character.

There's a nice emotional complexity to her reactions to Barry's return that go deeper than just presenting grief or a desire to move on - her feelings are messy, and contradictory, and it's clear she can barely reconcile them, as she's torn between welcoming Barry's return and fearing its implications. Candice Patton does excellent work dramatising this emotional struggle, believably portraying Iris' emotionally fraught reactions with nuance and sensitivity - a strong case for her being given meatier material to work with than what the season three arc ostensibly focused around her actually offered up.

Then there's Barry. There's always Barry - The Flash has never been able to avoid him for long, with his decisions forming the crux of every season premiere so far. It's not surprising that The Flash Reborn opts to bring him back midway through, and there's enough dramatic sense in it too, as the conflicts in post-Barry STAR Labs had the potential to become repetitive and distractingly moody. As for the method of his retrieval... well, it's also not surprising that The Flash Reborn squares the circle of the troublesome Speed Force Prison with a sciencey thingy that makes everything okay. It is, however, a little disappointing, even if this was the path the show was always going to take.

Season three was dramatically muddled, but it did put a lot of emphasis on the nature of the prison as a place where someone must always sacrifice themselves, so for The Flash Reborn to handwave that problem anyway undercuts the drama season three made out of it. That's the problem with the episode's 'gas leak year' method - it clears up problems, but makes what came before seem less consequential and meaningful in the long run. Even bad ideas need to be acknowledged.

In The Flash Reborn's defence, it does some genuinely interesting things with Barry instead of immediately restoring him to his normal self. His 'Beautiful Mind' ramblings and volatility becomes a compelling source of unpredictability in the episode's second half, as a hollow shell onto which the rest of the team has to project their own hopes and fears. Every STAR Labs member sees Barry through the lens of confirmation bias - it's a beyond-worst-case scenario for the anxious Iris, a problem to be fixed by Cisco, and a source of hope for restoration by Joe.

That's nicely informative of where the characters are at emotionally, and how their ways of looking at the world have been changed or not by the events of season three (Cisco and Joe, interestingly, are back to their old selves, while it's clear Iris' character development is going to stick). Grant Gustin has been given an Olympic heptathlon of acting challenges by the show in the last year, and crazy Barry is another different guise of the character that Gustin aces, bringing a detached wildness to Barry that really sells the team's stunned reactions at his changes.

The frustrating nature of Barry's fugue state heightens the catharsis of the inevitable moment where he snaps free and speeds back into action, and it's a satisfying moment that more than earns the build up. It's all the makings of a successful final showdown - a personal breakthrough, a silly but fun video-game chase sequence, a lovely new suit and a flying samurai android, and its joyful, crowdpleasing restoration of order demonstrates the calculated nature of the episode's plotting.

Even when it speeds past interesting dramatic stories like Wally and Cisco in Central City or rescuing Barry from the Speed Force, it's doing so with a purpose, which is to reach the destination that everyone wants to see - a happy and contented Barry who's faster than ever before, back in action. It's hard not to smile along with the STAR Labs team at the end.

One thing that every season premiere must accomplish is to plant the seeds of mysteries and character arcs that'll slowly come to fruition over the course of the next 22 episodes, and it's something that The Flash Reborn does very well. Caitlin's arc is a great example of this - initially, it seems to be a lazy U-turn from the intriguing twist at the end of season three where she settled on being neither Caitlin nor Killer Frost, but then takes a surprising turn as her condition is revealed to have progressed to a Hulk, or a Ghost Rider (pick your monstrous alter ego!) situation.

There are some really interesting stories implied by that twist, with the potential for a lot more nuance than the binary good or evil conflict season three provided with Killer Frost, and perhaps even suggests a future for Killer Frost as an asset for the team to be conjured at will, instead of an antagonist.

Even longer-term, there's Barry's ramblings, which many fans have theorised to reflect a kind of foresight granted by the timeless Speed Force, given the mix of recognisable lines from seasons past and references to unknown situations. There's a chance that this string of seeming nonsense is the equivalent of the bus stop at Infantino Street from last year, a set of cryptic clues to events yet to come. If that's the case, there's a lot to chew on, from the references to 'melting stars' to a call for more diapers.

And, of course, there's the stinger, which forms the most obvious bit of foreshadowing in The Flash Reborn by introducing this year's Big Bad - Clifford DeVoe aka the Thinker, introduced skilfully as the real mastermind behind the episode's events, retroactively giving intrigue and depth to the episode's utilitarian foe, the Samuroid. It's a cliché to talk about this show's overabundance of speedster villains in past years, but it's such a relief to have an overarching foe who will challenge Barry in a different way than making him worry about how fast he has to go (although, you never know, he might want to steal Barry's speed to get out of what wheelchair thing).

DeVoe's look is certainly striking, leaning into the character's lack of physical threat and connoting an unsettling sense of otherness. With his gaunt, hairless look and fancy tech supporting him, the guy almost looks like an alien or an android, and that's a fun spin on the character.

I've spent a long time talking about these mysteries, but they're important in considering why The Flash Reborn works despite its shortcuts and omissions. It's a premiere that makes the viewer (or, at the very least, made me) want more. It asks questions I want to see answered. How will Caitlin fit into the team? Is Barry okay? Did his ramblings mean anything? Why did the Thinker want him back in town? Which house is bitchin'? This isn't a premiere that will set the world alight, and it sometimes forgets the opportunities of the present in order to speed into the future, but it's one that lays some very promising groundwork for the season to come, both in terms of a new status quo and in terms of intrigue.

Its job was to bring lightness and joy back to Central City and bring things back to basics. In that respect, job done. Now, let's see what this new Flash, and the new Flash, can do.

Overall Grade: B+

+ A return to lightness
+ Character development for Iris
+ Mystery and intrigue

- Misses some storytelling opportunities
- Shortcuts past some of season three's big obstacles

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