How The CW Used ‘Flash’ To Pitch a ‘Firestorm’ Spinoff
How The CW Used ‘Flash’ To Pitch a ‘Firestorm’ Spinoff
[WARNING: this article contains spoilers for The Flash Season 1, Episode 14.]
There are few entertainment landscapes as harsh as that of the TV Pilot; some make it to air, some make it to fans, and others never see the light of day. Few are able to avoid the gauntlet, but with the success of Arrow, the producers and network tried a more subtle approach: use one DC Comics superhero adapted to television to help launch another. And so it was that the success of Green Arrow helped bring The Flash to life.
Fans have hotly discussed the possibilities once two new superheroes-in-the-making were added this season – Brandon Routh‘s Ray Palmer and Robbie Amell‘s Ronnie Raymond – as The CW looked to expand its shared universe (and a Firestorm series our early favorite). Even so, Episode 14 of The Flash took us by surprise, feeling much, much more like a backdoor Firestorm pilot than even Barry Allen’s introduction into Starling City ever did.
Some may have enjoyed the episode as just another dose of metahuman/science fiction, but when spinoffs are not being teased, but outright confirmed, the amount of time and energy put into establishing the strengths of a Firestorm series can’t be ignored. Some might doubt the character’s staying power, but allow us to lay out the reasons we’re already giving The CW the benefit of the doubt – and awaiting more hints that Firestorm will be the next CW spinoff.
Considering how rarely superheroes are adapted to live-action (or were, before The Flash‘s debut), it was encouraging to hear that Robbie Amell, previous star of The Tomorrow People had joined the cast as Ronnie Raymond – the man who might one day become ‘Firestorm The Nuclear Man.’ With executive producer Greg Berlanti’s past work on Tomorrow People, Amell was just the first cast member to find a new role in the Arrow/Flash universe.
We had minor suspicions at the time that Amell’s casting could hint at a larger role down the road, having previously starred in the comic book-y CW drama. But those suspicions skyrocketed when producers Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim called on their Eli Stone alum Victor Garber to play Firestorm’s other half, Professor Martin Stein. Amell’s time in the spotlight may have been short-lived, but Garber’s involvement seemed far too substantial for a minor role.
With decades of film and TV under his belt – from Alias and Damages to Argoand Titanic – and with an open schedule, we felt his veteran experience paired with Amell’s broad appeal and their combined fanbase could have the makings of a solo series. When appearing in flashback, Amell showed that his cousin (and Arrow) star Stephen Amell wasn’t the reason he had nabbed the part, but the show’s most recent episode allowed the actor to cast off his Garber impersonation, separating ‘Firestorm’ into its component parts/actors.
The result largely confirmed both sides of the equation: Amell is at least as capable of holding the spotlight as his Arrow kin, while Garber managed to play both an authority figure, a pizza-loving mentor, and a man as thrilled at the possibilities of time travel and crime-fighting as the audience.
If The Flash has proven anything, it’s that a charming cast with abundant chemistry is half the challenge of launching a modern comic series. With Amell’s current turn in The Duff proving that, in the words of our own Ben Kendrick, “the up-and-coming actor is more than just a TV heartthrob,” both he and Garber have taken to their respective roles noticeably quickly. Their starring episode – titled “Fallout” – will surely have fans wishing to see more of ‘Ronald’ and the Professor sooner, rather than later.
With each new superhero comes a unique mythology, and Firestorm – or rather, F.I.R.E.S.T.O.R.M. – is no exception. But in a truly devious turn, the writers of The Flash decided to deliver the sci-fi substance in a slow trickle over the course of The Flash‘s debut season. First came Ronnie’s ‘death’ after being vaporized in the particle accelerator meltdown, giving Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) her emotional arc for the first half of the season. But when a dishevelled, schizophrenic, fire-wielding Ronnie returned, fans’ curiosity was piqued.
With a single uttered word – “Firestorm” – both Caitlin and Cisco (Carlos Valdes) set out to uncover the mysterious project, essentially feeding viewers an explanation for Ronnie’s – and Martin Stein’s – fate. To guarantee that everyone understood the central conceit of the science behind ‘The Firestorm Matrix,’ it was offered in layman’s terms by Pied Piper: the two men had become one.
The core premise that two humans could combine into one (and remain permanently in sync mentally and physiologically as a result) isn’t too far out of The Flash‘s usual fiction, but the S.T.A.R. Labs team made sure to walk viewers through the science from day one. As a ‘walking nuclear bomb,’ two minds and bodies occupying the same space can not remain stable – not without a handy Splicer (and well-designed hint of a superhero uniform in-the-making).
Initially used to separate the two men, “Fallout” showed that the Splicer was the key to both men’s survival. Establishing the bond that links these two men forever, it is the Firestorm Matrix (apparently contained within their bloodstream) that draws them back to their union. Made possible without a catastrophic explosion by the Splicer, both men accepting their fate results in balance, the combined intelligence of both, and powers of fire. But fire is just the beginning.
The writers also made sure to plant seeds for the true potential of Firestorm, describing Professor Stein as an expert in transmutation a.k.a. the science of ‘making one substance into another.’ And perhaps most suspiciously, fails to explain just what the device was that Martin Stein was holding when the merge occurred.
The episode concludes by sending the duo to Pittsburgh (where both resided in comic canon) to learn more about their powers – powers that, if faithful to the source material, extend to all matter. That means not only blasts of energy and the gift of flight, but the ability to tear matter down to a molecular level and rebuild it.
It’s easy to see why a hero with control over elements and matter is a unique creature, and with audiences already well-versed in the science beneath it, even a return appearance wouldn’t be enough to capitalize on the potential – only a solo series could hope to. One forever bonded to The Flash in the CW universe, as the Firestorm insignia emblazoned on Ronnie’s chest is the same symbol used for the particle accelerator that forged the two men into one.
In today’s world, sub-par effects simply won’t do on film. As comic book superheroes take over TV, a similar bar is being set (with The Flash and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. two main reasons). Even so, the midseason finale downright stunned viewers when Ronnie Raymond said his goodbyes, burst into flames, and went soaring off into the sky on a pillar of fire. It remains one of the most polished effects yet seen in the show, which further piqued our curiosity as to why The CW would invest so heavily in making a supporting character seem close to movie-quality.
As we now know, that was only the beginning. Seeing Robbie Amell erupt into flames was served buffet style in the episodes since – but there was simply no way of recreating that first shocking flight. In terms of action, The Flash has relied more on Barry Allen’s emotional struggle to bring down enemies, as opposed to truly inspired or groundbreaking uses of his power. Knowing that, a more substantial approach to Firestorm’s powers should have been expected.
The showrunners delivered just that in our suspected backdoor pilot, spending time to make the merge/division of Ronnie and Professor Stein not just visually impressive, but hinting at a consistent narrative explanation. Watching two men clutch hands to be transformed into a nuclear vapor that congeals into a single form would have been enough of a conceit and effect to build a sci-fi show of the 1990s around, but it wasn’t all.
Typically, watching such a pyromaniac hero split back into two regular people would be somewhat anticlimactic. But when the process means watching Ronnie Raymond erupt into flames before both men step out into space, it’s a safe bet audiences will be just as excited. Combine those visual effects with the fiction behind Firestorm – and his fiery ground-slam capable of wiping out an entire Army troop – and a seldom-seen supporting hero seems like short shrift.
Regardless of whether you’re a fan of “Firestorm” or not, viewers of The Flash and Arrow who weighed the chances of seeing a spinoff starring the character, like us, were unsure if enough of a narrative hook was present in the fiction. As long-lasting as a mastery of matter may prove for a monster-of-the-week procedural, audiences are likely getting enough of that format on The CW as is.
But when “Fallout” first showed that the link between Ronnie and Professor Stein meant one could experience the feelings or terror of the other, it seemed the writers had been one step ahead of our apprehensions. It was unlike any physical relationship or ‘signal’ we’ve yet seen in the genre, and when Ronnie took a page from Looper‘s book and carved a message into his skin for Stein to read, it seemed clear audiences were only witnessing the tip of the iceberg.
Then came the re-merging.
When Ronnie and Professor Stein decided to use the Splicer to re-merge, accepting the balance sought by the Matrix within their bodies, the results were nowhere near as disastrous as they had been in the past. Ronnie retained control of his mind and body, and Stein was presented as a voice inside his head, analyzing the battlefield along with him, and offering advice. In short, the exact relationship that has existed in the comics and animated DC universe since the beginning.
That’s certainly fan service for the comic diehards hoping to see Firestorm completely realized in live-action, but the retro sci-fi likely won over some older fans with its almost throwback voiceover and fiction. The showrunners weren’t through showing off, however, and when Barry and Ronnie took a victory lap down a stretch of highway into a commercial break, the writing seemed to be screaming off the wall.
The CW Spinoff Formula?
With The Flash so quickly endearing itself to a superhero audience, the show’s actual origins may have already slipped the minds of most. It was back in the days when the future of The CW’s superhero universe was limited to just one show, and the network sought out as much early marketing and attention as possible. In a true rarity for the comic book adaptation game, the showrunners actually confirmed the plans for a Flash TV series on the very same day it was reported.
The origin story went even better than expected: Grant Gustin was introduced as police scientist ‘Barry Allen’ – a man with a taste for the superhuman – and immediately charmed audiences. Then came a return appearance, before Barry headed home to Central City, and ended the episode with the lab accident that kicked off his superhero origins. And the table was set for his own series to pick up where Arrow left off.
Yet that was not the original plan. The original plan was to have Barry Allen appear on the scene in Episode 8, return in Episode 9, and head off before returning once more in the back half of the season in his own starring episode – openly referred to as a backdoor pilot by the network (and a means to remind Arrow viewers of the new addition to the shared universe inbound). The strategy – and Gustin – proved strong enough to remove the need for a concealed pilot; and we could be seeing the same plan employed already.
It may purely be coincidence that after Ronnie Raymond’s death was shown in flashback for Episode 4, it wasn’t until Episode 8 that the being known as ‘Firestorm’ made his fiery debut – in the first part of an Arrow/Flash crossover, no less, ensuring that the largest possible audience would suddenly be asking who ‘Ronnie Raymond’ really was. He would return in Episode 9 – uttering the word ‘Firestorm’ for the first time – before showing his heroic side by saving Barry from Reverse-Flash, and leaving the scene in every bit as memorable a fashion as Barry had a year previous.
We now arrive at an episode that hands the story reins to both Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein, showcasing an incredibly well-executed demonstration of what makes Firestorm a promising property, and quite frankly, delivering everything that The CW had likely hoped for The Flash’s own backdoor pilot. Gustin’s impact won over their suspicions immediately, but then, he is The Flash.
Perhaps Firestorm needed to prove himself a bit more definitively? Robbie Amell has already given a tease that he and Garber may return once more when the season nears its end, and if it’s as memorable as it sounds, then the hero becomes even more of a frontrunner for spinoff potential in our eyes:
“There’s no holding back with this character and it sounds like I’ll be back. They haven’t made anything official but it sounds like I’ll be back for the end of the season… And if what they’re telling me about comes to be, it’s going to absolutely blow people away.”
We’ve already outlined plenty of reasons that Firestorm could work as a series (and the amount of time and energy put into his debut on The Flash implies the network is at least covering their bases). If his second starring appearance is as polished, an official announcement may be just a formality – or on the other hand, a missed opportunity.
The fact that The Flash was apparently conceived with Ronnie Raymond as a main character has us thinking this spinoff formula was the plan all along. If not, then fans will certainly keep making their voices be heard.
The Flash returns Tuesday, March 17 @8pm on The CW.