blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Flash (1990, Robert Iscove)

As a pilot movie, The Flash is a success. It establishes its regular cast—John Wesley Shipp, Amanda Pays, Alex Désert, Paula Marshall (who wasn’t back, but sure seemed like she would be)—and doing an admirable, post-Burton Batman live-action superhero. Danny Elfman even contributes the theme, while composer Shirley Walker keeps the rest in Elfmanesque line.

There are also some solid guest stars—Tim Thomerson and Priscilla Pointer—and some okay ones—M. Emmet Walsh (he’s just barely putting in any effort) and Lycia Naff. No superhero (even TV) movie can be without a villain, which is where The Flash shows its age. Michael Nader plays the villain, an ex-cop who escaped prison when arrested for highway robbery and recruited the city’s unhoused twentysomethings into a motorcycle gang. They’re the “Dark Riders,” which the movie pretends is a scary name. A few times, it seems like they changed something with The Flash–including the Dark Riders having a blood spot on their jackets–and it seems like that name came in late. Like, Shipp’s supposedly watching the news about them and grinning, even though it’s during his dark arc.

Shipp’s a crime lab scientist in the days before “CSI” made it popular. Big brother Thomerson is the city super cop, and dad Walsh used to be on the beat (mom Pointer had Shipp promise to stay in a safe job)–the first act’s about Shipp’s resentment about not being a real cop. The third act will be his “with great power comes great responsibility” arc, recovering from the death of a loved one, which motivates him to seek revenge against the villains.

He was trying to solve the case anyway because he wanted to show Walsh he could do it and to help out Thomerson. The Flash is copaganda by default, but the cops can’t keep up with the villains—even if they’re just seventies exploitation baddies done with a budget and “90210” extras—so they need a superhero to help them out. Luckily, Shipp just happens to have been struck by lightning and doused in various chemicals–the result: super speed.

Shipp’s super speed discovery subplot is a lot of fun—Shipp’s got a dog to play off, which gives the pilot a surprising amount of texture—and the pilot leans into the wonderment value for a while. Shipp’s got to team up with Star Labs scientist Pays (they’re the local super-lab, the one with the government contracts and super soldier programs) to figure out his new powers and, even though he’s dating Marshall and Pays is a tragic widow, they have some chemistry from go.

The movie’s third act, when it’s all about Shipp exacting his suitable-for-prime-time vengeance on the bad guys, is where The Flash gets lost in the fog. It’s trying not to be too mean—giving Shipp one-liners, for instance—but it doesn’t want to take any time giving them characterization. Especially not in case it makes them sympathetic. It’s cruel about its callousness, though the pilot does okay rendering cartoon villains in live-action.

In addition to the Batman ‘89 vibes, The Flash lifts a bunch from Robocop, including the police uniforms. The Flash cops are just missing the helmets, really. Though I guess only the motorcycle squad, who goes after Nader. The Flash doesn’t have any great motorcycle scenes. There are a bunch of places it feels like they skip around for budgetary reasons. Like Nader’s reign of terror. The opening scene establishes the streets aren’t safe, but then Shipp’s superpower discovery arc is full of nice restaurants and lovely parks. It’s apparently not unsafe until dark, at which point it becomes a hellhole.

Shipp works better in the brighter sections. He’s only got a handful of dramatic scenes, and he does okay with most of them. Not really the most important one, but it’s also a rough scene, thanks to the costars. Shipp handles it adequately. Some of the problem is writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo don’t know how to end the pilot. Or, if they do, it’s way too rushed.

The special effects are excellent for TV. More impressive is the production design, which has many art deco touches but also very late eighties modern designs. The sets are always interesting to see; it’s inviting. It works out very well (Dean Edward Mitzer did the production design, Jeannie Gunn decorated sets, and an uncredited Hugo Santiago was on art direction, which is a lot—the murals are gorgeous). Good photography from Sandi Sissel, and good editing from Frank E. Jimenez. At first, it seems like Jimenez has problems cutting conversations, but then it becomes clear director Iscove wasn’t getting the coverage. Iscove’s direction hurts Walsh’s performance the most.

Biff Manard and Vito D'Ambrosio are a hoot as the Mutt and Jeff cops (they continue into the show).

The Flash finishes with a promise for more but isn’t specific about what more will be, other than Shipp in a red suit, running fast, Pays nagging him to think about his limitations, Désert being the charming straight-man sidekick, and Marshall… well, Marshall’s apparently just going to moon over Shipp. Based on how little Marshall got to do in the third act versus the first, maybe they adjusted since they knew she wasn’t back.

Shipp’s a good lead, and Pays—who keeps very busy onscreen even when she doesn’t get material, which makes the character immediately distinctive—is a good confidante. Bumps aside—thankfully, no lags—The Flash sets the show up quite well. Next week, same Flash time, same Flash channel.

8 responses to “The Flash (1990, Robert Iscove)”

  1. I remember having a bit of a crush on Amanda Pays based on seeing her in MAX HEADROOM.

    Oh man, FLASH was such a big deal to us comic book nerds when it came out, especially in the wake of BATMAN ‘89. It wasn’t bad for the time. I lost interest in superhero comics since, so I’ve never seen the more recent FLASH show. Will I see the upcoming movie? Eh, I dunno. Maybe if they bring back John Wesley Shipp?

    1. You should definitely check out the first couple seasons of the new show. Especially if you’re fan of Pays and Shipp.

  2. I didn’t catch this when it came out, but it apparently had a loyal base of fans who still regard it with fondness. From your description, it sounds like there was a lot of talent behind it, with the Danny Elfman music as icing on the cake. The Robocop aesthetic also sounds interesting (but I confess the motorcycle gang as antagonists seems underwhelming). I see it only lasted a season – you just never know what’s going to gel in the moment and what’s going to sink into obscurity.

    1. It’s been 20+ years since I’ve watched the series proper (and probably the pilot), but lots of the villains are very 1990 😐 There are villain highlights, just not the bikers. And the Robocop aesthetic was a surprise to me too. I wasn’t versed enough on it when I first saw the show. 🤖

  3. mercurie80

    I watched The Flash when it was first on and I re-watched the entire series about a year ago. Both then and now I thought the pilot was trying too hard to be Batman and not hard enough to be The Flash. Still, I enjoyed the pilot and I enjoyed the regular series even more. It’s not great, but I still find it very entertaining. Anyhow, I think you summarized the pilot’s strengths and weaknesses very well! Thank you for taking part in the blogathon.

  4. Danny Elfman–I’m totally there.

    1. Come for the Elfman, stay for the Shirley Walker! 🎶

      1. Yeah, there you go! 🙂

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