Saturday, February 01, 2014

Flash of Insight

I don't understand the Flash at all. He's one of my favourite members of the Justice League because he is the most entertaining (here I am thinking specifically of Wally West), but as much as I enjoy his antics, I have not been able to figure out how his powers work or how he works as a person.

To contrast, I would like to bring up Marvel's most famous speedster, Quicksilver. He has never been my favourite member of any team he was part of, but he was a member of both X-Factor and the Avengers (two teams I like a hell of a lot better than the Justice League), so I have read a great deal of comics that feature him, and I'm fairly sure I get him. Unlike the Flash, Quicksilver can only run at subsonic speeds - which obviates the questions asked about the Flash of whether his running creates deafening sonic booms or whether he goes shooting off the edge of the planet when he hits escape velocity. This isn't really that bad a limitation, though. Sure, over long distances, it is sometimes more efficient for him to take a train or plane than just to walk, but in close quarters (where close quarters are defined as being in the same county as his destination), he moves much faster than any human should need to move. In addition to his super-fast feet, he also has a super-fast mind. By that I mean that he reacts more quickly than normal humans and also that he learns more quickly. From what I have seen, he spends most of his time staving off the immense boredom that comes from one's mind moving too quickly, but in a combat situation, his speed translates into obvious advantages. If his teammates ever took an active interest in him, I'm sure they would find that he is more skilled and versatile than they give him credit for, but they don't because he keeps regular-speed people at a distance, which makes sense given how irritated he is with them for constantly slowing him down. So, his failure to excel as a superhero is because he is a smug, emotionally distant asshole, not because of the limits of his power. That actually describes a few people I know who stagnate at their jobs despite a surfeit of talent. I understand Quicksilver.

The Flash has neither Quicksilver's limitations of power nor his crippling emotional issues, yet he still seems incapable of doing anything right. I don't get it. On a basic level, I don't know what his powers are or what rules govern them and I'm not sure his writers and editors do either. On the surface, it seems so simple. He's fast. Really fast. No, faster than that. He runs fast, he vibrates fast, he does everything fast. He does everything so fast that the physical laws of our universe cease to function. I understand that, but there's a simple question that I have no answer to: Does the Flash react faster than normal humans? I'm sure that fans of the Flash have a simple, set answer to that question, and whatever that answer is, I call bullshit.

On a practical, storytelling level, it seems that people want the Flash to have normal human reaction times, just to give his enemies any chance at all against him. The Flash moves so quickly that his enemies would never have time to react, meaning that he would instantly and easily win any fight against any opponent who wasn't invulnerable, and if his opponent were invulnerable, he still wouldn't be fast enough to land a punch and the Flash could just vibrate past him. However, I just reread Barry Allen's original origin story, and it confirms that his mind does indeed work more quickly than a normal person's, and, although the Flash has been rebooted at least three times since then, that does seem consistent with how he moves. I have seen Flash run in the direction of a stationary object at such a speed that a person would not have been able to react in time to avoid hitting it. In fact, I have seen the Flash run at relativistic speeds, which should mean that whatever direction he runs in, there will be an object in that direction, which he will immediately flatten himself against. It also should mean that he shouldn't be able to see the object. If he's running faster than light can reach his eyes, he should be blind, right? I'm willing to accept that light and vision do not work the same way in the Flash's world as they do in ours. In his world, colours are emotions, the phrase "Speed Force" means something other than a methamphetamine law enforcement agency, and physics is dumber than hell. I can go along with that, on the condition that once a rule is established, it is not contradicted.

So we have established that the Flash must have super-fast reaction times in order for him to run as fast as he does. I call bullshit on that, too. If that were the case, then almost no villain ever would be able to hit the Flash. The Flash could only be hit unexpectedly from behind with a projectile traveling faster than the speed of sound that hits before any sound alerts him to the attack. By the way, in the aforementioned origin story, Barry dodges a bullet that was fired unexpectedly from behind him, so the projectile would have to be moving faster than an ordinary bullet. Also, the Flash would probably have to be standing still, because once he started moving, you'd have no way to aim at him let alone hit him. It wouldn't be impossible to hit the Flash, but some very specific circumstances would have to be met. Yet I have seen non-super-powered villains shoot, punch, kick, and even trip the Flash when they were right in front of him in his field of vision. How is that possible? Relative to the Flash, the villains' speed would be negligible, meaning that from his perspective, a villain's foot would be moving at about the same speed as the wall behind him and would be just as easy to avoid. No human villain, no matter how well trained, could possibly win a fight against the Flash for the same reason that sloth boxing is not a thing in real life.

Speaking of training, the existence of Batman also makes the Flash baffling. There is a persistent rumour going around that Batman doesn't have any super powers, but if that were the case, then he could never be called the World's Greatest Detective when the Flash existed. Batman comics want us to believe that ordinary people can become supernaturally skilled just by training really hard. If that's the case, then super-powered people should be able to become inconceivably skilled. Research would be really easy for someone who can read and process information at super-speed and the Flash already should have the necessary reasoning and observation skills from his day job as a forensic scientist. There is no reason why other detectives wouldn't be willing to provide him with guidance and opportunities, considering he would be better equipped than anyone to act on any information they had. He could become experienced and knowledgeable very quickly. As for his physical capabilities, he could also learn martial arts the same way that Batman did - and he probably should be doing that anyway, so that he could more effectively take down Professor Zoom or any other super-fast villains. The only difference would be that he could practice at super-speed. For the Flash, the time between learning a technique and mastering it would be reduced substantially. Due to his perception of time, he could have more time to practice his fighting in a week off than most people do in their whole lives. Some people might say that this makes the Flash too reliant on his powers - which I think is like saying that Stephen Hawking is too reliant on his knowledge of astrophysics in his work - but it's really just the opposite. Even if he lost his powers, he would retain all of his knowledge and skills and would be an expert detective, master martial artist, and any other damned thing he chose to learn in his free time. The only reason I could see that he couldn't become as skillful as Batman would be if he had a severe learning disability. Are we meant to believe that in this world, police departments hire developmentally disabled scientists? Or did he develop this condition later - maybe when he was first acclimating himself to super-speed and kept running head first into walls at top speed? Wouldn't we see other signs of brain damage, then? Maybe there's a simpler explanation.

What the Justice League cartoon seems to imply is that the Flash just doesn't take crime fighting as seriously as his coworkers. That explanation is not good enough for me. Maybe I could accept that if crime fighting wasn't really what he wanted to do with his life, but it's what he spends all his time on. As it is, he is putting his own life and those of his teammates in jeopardy by failing to deal with situations that he could handle himself if he stopped fucking around. Why is Superman not constantly slapping the shit out of him? Batman has experience training others to become effective crime fighters. The Flash should be easier to train than anyone, since he should start seeing results the first day. Is Batman just too self-centered to see that the Flash could be the greatest weapon ever in his war against crime? I should probably admit now that I don't really understand Batman, either.

Batman stories just shouldn't be able to happen in a world where the Flash exists. Members of the Justice League have communicators that allow for instantaneous contact, which makes Batman ever putting himself in danger foolish and irresponsible. As soon as he had located any non-super-powered villain, he could just contact the Flash, who would take a five-minute break from his schedule of standing perfectly motionless and letting his enemies shoot at him to run down to Gotham, disarm the criminal, and turn him over to the police. I couldn't imagine it would take longer than that, because nobody in Gotham has the ability to stop, slow, or even resist the Flash. I know that, because anyone who did would have killed Batman by now (or at least would have if Batman actually didn't have super powers). Really, everyone the Joker ever killed was indirectly the Flash's fault.

Maybe I was wrong before. Maybe the Flash is just an asshole.