My first exposure to the character of Rip Hunter was The Legacy of Superman, a companion piece to the Death of Superman storyline released prior to the Man of Tomorrow’s subsequent resurrection, a time when the general public still assumed Superman’s death to be a lasting change, both in-universe and out. In the final short story of the anthology, a character named Waverider attempts to travel through time to the moment before Doomsday kills Krypton’s last son. It is only Rip Hunter’s intervention and impassioned intercession that stays Waverider’s hand.
Even at seven years old reading this comic, fully believing Superman would never return, Waverider’s reactionary and reckless regard for time-manipulation still seemed beyond belief to me. With access to the entire history of humanity and the universe, he makes no effort to ascertain the effects of Superman’s demise, lacking the long view of time and the proper perspective such instills, instead immediately attempting to change the past while willfully ignorant of the future. Contrast such with Dr. Manhattan in the final issue of Watchmen. On the far side of the tachyon interference, he now has total clarity with respect to his own infinite future. When asked by Adrien Veidt for validation that he’d done the right thing and everything works out in the end, Jon responds by stoically saying, “‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrien. Nothing ever ends.”
Rip Hunter in the pilot of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow could stand to heed the advice of his comic book counterpart and Dr. Manhattan. The cold open establishes the state of the world in Rip’s own time of 2166, where the immortal Vandal Savage has conquered humanity, but even with access to time travel Hunter never jumps ahead to ascertain the length of Vandal’s reign or his inevitable downfall. Superman’s death lasted mere months in the comics. For all Hunter knew Vandal might have had his comeuppance coming up in days or weeks.
The episode eventually establishes an ulterior motive for Rip, specifically saving the wife and son Savage slaughtered, but while such serves to humanize Hunter, it strips him of all pretenses of heroism. The argument can even be made that in tampering with spacetime as he is, Rip is responsible for the annihilation of far more individuals than Savage could ever hope to subjugate. The psychological continuity theory of personal identity would imply that, were time to be altered, so too would an individual’s set of past memories, and as such they’d constitute distinct individuals; ergo, the denizens of the original timeline are utterly destroyed.
Of course, overanalyzing the philosophical implications of a popular culture product often misses its primary purpose of easy entertainment and straightforward storytelling. Such is especially true of time-travel stories. With the exception of Lost, which strictly adhered to an eternalist block-universe in which all moments are atemporally simultaneous with one another and therefore inalterable (“Whatever happened, happened”), no major science-fiction show has ever started with sound metaphysics and subsequently constructed the story around such. Not that this is necessarily problematic per se. Back to the Future plays fast and loose with its own rules, but is more emotionally engaging for doing so.
Legends of Tomorrow at least spells out to the viewer the rules of its time travel by the pilot’s end. There exists a single universe, the timeline of which changes as a result of Hunter’s team interfering with the past. They are emphatically not creating alternate timelines as per the multiverse model of time travel (there is a DC television multiverse as established in The Flash, but such is unrelated to the time travel in Legends). Furthermore, time in the series is likened to an organism, capable of healing itself to an extent (a necessary hand-waving on the writers’ part of certain paradoxes).
For there to be a past or a future for the heroes to travel to at all implies that all points in time have equal ontological status. Except in a growing-block universe (which is problematic for too many reasons to here enumerate), this implies that the future has “already happened” (more technically, absent of temporal becoming, all points in time are equally extant, not merely predetermined to happen but experienced by their inhabitants with the same subjectivity as the “present”). The writers were probably envisioning this to imply a hypertime perpendicular to normal time (imaginary time, time which utilizes imaginary numbers, is actually like this in Hawkings’ model). However, it would also imply that there was never a version of the timeline in which Hunter fails to alter the timeline, leading to further paradox.
To what extent the average viewer without a degree in philosophy (my focus, in fact, was specifically in the metaphysics of spacetime, and I’m taking a graduate class on such at Rutgers this semester) concerns themselves with the morality and metaphysics of time-travel will probably depend on the quality of surrounding show. In this case, the CW should be worried. Between the ensemble cast and science-fiction setting, the budget is obviously spread thin, with shoddy production values resulting.
The costumes and effects are certainly a step up from the Smallville era (which was more than I was able to say for CBS’ Supergirl), but years yet behind film. The Atom’s power armor takes obvious inspiration from Iron Man, but Tony’s Mark II from the 2008 film has much more texture and weight to it. Likewise, White Canary’s leather ensemble would look at home in Affleck’s Daredevil, and Firestorm’s outfit, sans the flame effect, could be found off the rack at a Halloween supplies store. The Hawks, however, from their armor to their wings, serve as the standard to which the rest of the attire should adhere.
More problematic is the set pieces, specifically the Waverider, Hunter’s time machine and sure to be the shows most recurring setting. It’s barely a step up from the Enterprise deck of the original series Star Trek, so primitive that it’s painful to look at. Martin Stein’s comments upon first boarding regarding how advanced it appears leads to a laughable moment given the obvious disconnect between the dialogue and the design.
Brandon Routh as the Atom is the only A-list star, with the rest of the ensemble played by relative unknowns. All except Arthur Darvill as Rip Hunter previously appeared elsewhere in the DC television universe, though some of the later additions, such as Franz Drameh as Jefferson Jackson and Ciara Renée as Kendra Saunders were undoubtedly cast with the spinoff in mind. Apart from Routh, the only real standout is Wentworth Miller as Leonard Snart, who confidently chews scenes with all the wonderfully overwrought ham of Shatner or Calculon. It’s an approach to acting underappreciated among the modern appetites for self-seriousness and sincerity.
Perhaps the pilot’s most serious problem was in the characterization of the protagonists, particularly during their period of recruitment. None raised any serious ethical objections regarding time-travel which would have validated their hesitancy. Instead, these established heroes and villains are imbued with all the sense of adventure of comfortable, content Bilbo Baggins in the first chapter of The Hobbit; such was a sensible starting point for the future Ringbearer, but utterly insincere of most anyone else, especially colorfully costumed champions and criminals, common to both thrill-seeking and a taste for adrenaline. The only one to articulate such a sensibility is Stein, who immediately undermines any likeability by rohypnolling his counterpart Jax (with whiskey that he hopefully spiked for that specific occasion and didn’t happen to have on hand, as the scene scarily suggests).
Admittedly, past experience has proved that even eventually excellent superhero shows have had poor pilots. With few exceptions, such as Smallville and Heroes, they debut dismally, and I make the mistake of not tuning in until a year’s worth of word-of-mouth praise convinces me to catch up on Netflix. Legends of Tomorrow certainly doesn’t buck this trend, and my temptation is to once again allow the masses to be my test audience for the next nine months before deciding whether or not to revisit it. Till then, I’ll continue to get my superhero fix from the comic books that have been and always will be the true home of these characters.