Ray Palmer is a beam of sunshine on DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, a perpetually positive presence who always hopes for the best and genuinely thinks it’s possible. He preaches the benefits of a hopeful attitude, and he wants the people around him to feel that same spirit. Sure, it makes him look like a goober a lot of the time, but he doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Ray’s cheerful disposition can be interpreted as a coping mechanism to keep him from succumbing to despair after personal tragedy (the death of his fiancée), and given that his life has shown him endless wonders after that loss, he believes that positive thinking really can make a difference.
Brandon Routh’s exuberant charm is what made him such a good fit to play Superman in 2006’s Superman Returns, although that film suppressed that quality by putting Routh in dreary character circumstances. The same can be said of Routh’s early appearances as Ray Palmer on Arrow, but once the character jumped over to Legends Of Tomorrow, Routh got the opportunity to give up the darkness and embrace the light. For the first season of Legends, you could feel some reluctance from the cast to fully engage with the sensational material because the show was playing the story far too seriously, but once the writers started to have more fun with the scripts, the cast loosened up and found the joy in the time-travelling superhero concept.
Last season’s George Lucas-centric episode was a turning point for Legends that pushed it firmly into silly territory while still showing reverence toward the pop culture tradition that feeds into the series. “Phone Home” goes even further with that concept as it recreates E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial with a superhero twist. In 1988 Ivy Town, a young Ray Palmer discovers an adorable baby Dominator he names Gumball, feeding it a diet of candy bars and hiding it in his closet. The Time Bureau is at their most Men In Black this week as they track down the baby alien and remove it from the time period at whatever cost necessary, which means shooting Ray dead when he tries to rescue his alien friend. The Legends aren’t going to just let their friend die, so they travel back in time to figure out what caused this most recent change in the timeline.
One of my favorite things about time travel stories is that they allow characters to directly see how their own nostalgic ideas of the past differ from how events truly transpired, which is exactly what Ray goes through in “Phone Home.” Ray looks at his childhood with the same rose-colored glasses through which he views the present, but going back in time reveals that his teasing friends were straight-up bullies and his mom wasn’t as supportive of his solitary lifestyle as he thought. Ray was a lonely kid, which means he’s quick to form an emotional bond with this alien creature that similarly seeks companionship. Seeing the reality of his past life changes adult Ray’s outlook, and he tries to convince his younger self that he can’t live in a fantasy world forever. But adult Ray does live in a fantasy world, and while he wants to teach his younger self a hard lesson, the reality is that Ray will become the superhero of his dreams.
Unlike with E.T., the viewer knows the danger posed by Dominators, so there’s that extra tension that Gumball will realize its deadly potential. The design of Gumball is both creepy and cuddly, but what really sells the character’s innocence is the infantile body language. E.T. doesn’t move like a human baby the way Gumball does, and this makes it easier to endear the viewer to Gumball in a shorter amount of time than E.T. gets in a full-length movie. Many moments are pulled directly from E.T., and when Zari uses her air-manipulating powers during Ray and Gumball’s escape, director Kevin Mock goes for a shot-for-shot reenactment of the iconic flying bicycle scene in Steven Spielberg’s film. I just rewatched E.T. last week, and with modern technology, Legends is able to make the special effects for its flying bike scene look just as good as what Spielberg accomplishes.
In addition to the overt E.T. homage, this episode also contains references to Aliens (Amaya saying, “Get away from him, you bitch,” when she rescues Nate), Shaun Of The Dead (Nate using records as a weapon against a monster), and, in a delightful surprise, Singin’ In The Rain. E.T. was an influence on Pixar’s Wall-E, and now Wall-E is an influence on Legends’ version of E.T., with Singin’ In The Rain replacing Hello, Dolly! as the musical of choice for this cute critter. That scene of Ray and Gumball bobbing their heads to “Good Morning” is when this episode won me over, but the episode takes that moment and goes even further with it when it looks like the heroes are about to be taken down by the Time Bureau. Instead, Gumball takes control of the agents’ minds and has them reenact “Good Morning” so the heroes can make their escape, and the impromptu musical number is the best example of this show’s willingness to be frivolous when it works for the script.
As some commenters pointed out after last week’s episode, Zari is Legends’ version of Isis, the Egyptian goddess superhero who wears Zari’s totem as a tiara rather than a necklace. That connection is solidified when Zari shows up in a superhero costume that looks a lot like Isis at the end of this episode, and the name change for the character makes sense given the negative connotations of Isis in our current political climate. The presence of an Isis analog would suggest that this series is delving into some of the mythology surrounding Shazam and his rival, Black Adam (Isis’ husband in the comics), but given that the Shazam! film is picking up steam, it’s unlikely that those characters will be available to the Legends writers. Isis and Vixen aren’t connected in the comics, so it looks like Zari is building something different on the foundation set by Isis.
Now that Zari is a member of the team, she needs to get used to wacky shit happening on the regular. She’s still in a 2042 mindset and expects everything to be dire, but she’s forced to soften up and be more playful on this mission as she becomes the Legend who interacts most with young Ray. Zari’s journey in this episode reminds me of my own journey watching this series, and I started to enjoy it much more when I was engaging with it from a more immature perspective. The tonal shift of the series after season 1 made this easier, and once the show gave itself permission to be childish, it was much more fun to watch. Legends Of Tomorrow has become my favorite superhero show on TV, and it satisfies that desire for escapism that has gotten stronger as the real world gets scarier and scarier. Sometimes I want an hour to forget about how the world is burning, and this series is delivering that with humor, imagination, and a gleeful sense of adventure.
Victor Garber continues to spend minimal time on-screen, but that becomes a plot point in this episode as Jax and Mick try to figure out why Martin has been so distant since the team got back together. They assume he’s a double agent ratting the team out to the Time Bureau, but the truth is far more innocuous: Martin has been visiting his pregnant daughter, Lily, and contacting her with a communicator that sends messages through time. Martin gets to be with his newborn grandchild at the end of the episode, and seeing Martin with the baby convinces Jax that he needs to break Firestorm apart so Martin can be stop traveling through time and be with his growing family.
Thus begins Garber’s exit storyline, and he could be off the show as early as the winter finale given that he’ll be stepping into the role of Horace Vandergelder in Broadway’s Hello, Dolly! with Bernadette Peters at the start of 2018. But I don’t expect Martin to be gone for good. Lily is still an aberration that shouldn’t exist in the current timeline, and we have no idea what kind of effect that will have on her child. We also still don’t know the identity of the baby’s father, and I have a creeping suspicion that his identity will be a reveal connected to this season’s larger Mallus storyline.
- Nate gets punished for ogling Ray’s mom when he ends up making out with the Dominator queen in one of the episode’s creepiest moments. That shot of Dominator’s hand wrapping around Nate’s head is a great reveal.
- Media preferences of the Legends: Nate’s favorite Billy Joel album is The Nylon Curtain, and Mick’s favorite musical is Fiddler On The Roof.
- This episode did not have enough of Caity Lotz fighting. Every episode needs at least one awesome Sara fight scene.
- I love that this episode is airing right after the premiere of Stranger Things’ second season, which is similarly fueled by ’80s nostalgia.
- Ray: “First up is two truths and a lie. It’s going to be fun.” Mick: “Lie!” Ray: “I haven’t started yet. Look, I know you probably think this is lame.” Sara: “Truth!”
- “Thanks for the pop quiz, Mrs. Garben. It really reinforced some fundamentals.” Now wonder young Ray was hated by his peers.
- “Is there a cougar on the premises?” Nate, you are awful.
- “I’m not crying, I just have alien goo in my eye.”