Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) in The CW’s The Flash is one of the clearest heroes on-screen today. A more straightforward “knight in shining red suit” than some hero characters on the sibling CW super shows, Barry Allen is a family-friendly hero who strives to stay true to himself and fight the good fight.
I have no problem with this, I wish more of today’s on screen heroes were less gray. It’s a common misconception that villains are more interesting because they are more “conflicted”. Wrong! Heroes deal with internal conflict on a regular basis, they just win the battle more than the villains do. We have seen Barry Allen go through hellish things and come out, not unscathed, but still true to who he is.
Barry’s strong moral compass and hopeful spirit have a huge impact on those around him. He collects friends and allies like some people collect stamps. He has a contagious spirit that rallies people to action and inspires a fierce loyalty and strength.
For every great hero’s story, it is important to have a strong contrast to your hero, otherwise everything comes out black and white. The creators of The Flash have come up with a perfect solution to this need: the villains are all a twisted reflection of Barry himself.
The scariest villains we meet are the ones we can see ourselves in. Ursula in The Little Mermaid is a dramatic and fabulous villain, but she fails to strike fear in us on a personal level. She never touches that part of your mind that says, “That could have been me…”
Eobard Thawne aka The Reverse Flash is the most obvious example. He began his journey trying to become another Flash, but he lacked the character and inner strength that Barry possesses. He personally attacks everything about Barry that he is the opposite of. His previous goal of becoming the Flash has twisted into becoming the dark alternative. And he’s really good at it.
Hunter Zolomon aka Zoom has an eerily similar childhood background to Barry, with a few very important exceptions. Barry was taken to a home filled with love and good people, Zolomon was kicked around from one miserable place to the other. Zoom is obsessed with speed, but his goal to become the universe’s fastest speedster stems from a self-glorified desire for power and people to fear him. Barry is constantly trying to get faster, but his desire stems from a desire to protect innocent people. Barry loves it when people feel safe because of his efforts.
Savitar aka the god of Speed is actually a time remnant of Barry, he’s essentially a clone. More than any of the other villains he starts from a place of being a mirror image to our Scarlet Speedster. But as we’ve seen in the cold cruelty of his heart, he is what Barry could have become had he not been loved, cared for, and chosen to do the right thing.
Barry has faced each one of these villains on a very personal level. They have either threatened, or actually taken his family, his health, his confidence, the love of his life, and so much more. And yet, he always overcomes. He picks up himself up after failure. He resolves himself to stay true to who he is, no matter what. He outruns every villain and their plan to destroy him.
Clifford DeVoe aka The Thinker is our first non-speedster villain. I was excited to have a new kind of villain this season, at the same time, I had to wonder how DeVoe would impact Barry on a personal level, what part of Barry he would attack.
He enters the picture as we were welcomed into a new era of The Flash and Barry Allen as we know them. Barry was reborn in Season 4, Episode 1 The Flash Reborn. He’s settled, he’s confident. He’s stupid fast. He’s faced Vader and the Emperor and come out the victor. He’s a Jedi Knight now.
Barry ties the knot with the love of his life, Iris West-Allen and together they are reigning as Central City’s heroic power couple.
Clifford DeVoe begins as a deeply sympathetic character. He’s a kindly professor, quiet and intellectual. He is married to a gorgeous woman who is his perfect partner. They have a beautiful house and eat homemade macaroni and cheese together. At first glance DeVoe has little in common with Barry, nor does he pose a deep threat. I couldn’t find the connection between Barry and his villain. In fact, for the first several episodes I actually LIKED the DeVoes and appreciate their devotion to one another. “Just like Barry and Iris.”
And then it hit me. This villain isn’t a dark reflection of Barry, he’s his own version of Barry. This season isn’t about attacking some personal aspect of who Barry is, this isn’t about making the Flash better, faster, stronger. This is all about DeVoe and his own “origin story”.
Like West-Allen, the DeVoes start out as a power couple. Soul mates, best friends, practically inside of each other’s heads. Their love has stood the test of time. Like Barry, Clifford wanted to make a difference in the world. He started out with the best of intentions, and his adoring wife The Mechanic went into the trenches right alongside him. They were a team.
As the season has continued, we have begun to see the unraveling of Clifford DeVoe from his own hero to a villain. He began his journey with the desire for two things:
(1) To love and be with his wife
(2) To educate
Once DeVoe gained powers, he managed to hold onto these two goals for a time, but the power began to take over his priority list, along with fear as his body gave way. Desperation, bitterness, and anger took root in his heart, now he must rule. He must be the best. He must know everything. He must have power.
We have seen him go from a loving husband and decent citizen to a crazed maniac who keeps switching bodies on his poor wife. There is no greater indication of just how low DeVoe is sinking than to watch Mrs. DeVoe’s face as her husband sinks lower and lower into crazed villainy. He sees her doubts, her questions, the way she is looking at him with distaste. He no longer seeks to partner with her, she has now become another object he desires to control.
Barry has lost himself at times, but it was always remembering the PEOPLE he loved that brought him back around. He welcomes and builds up the strength of others, even if they surpass his own in some aspects. West-Allen is so powerful because both Barry and Iris know they are at their best when the other person is thriving and strong.
DeVoe has lost sight of all the people, even his most beloved person, Marlize DeVoe, in his desire for control. He is rotting from the inside out.
It is said that we are all “the heroes of our own story”. This rings incredibly true in this season of The Flash. This season isn’t about the villain changing Barry, it’s about showing the heart of Barry and what makes him different from other people with “good intentions”.
Barry Allen and DeVoe may share a few similarities, but in the end one will fall to ruin, and the other will rise even higher. Why? It’s simple, Barry has never been about the power, he’s always been about the people. And people last. Power does not.
Barry invests in the people around him, and that is why he will win, because he is not alone. DeVoe has invested so heavily in his power that it has destroyed the people around him and himself in the process.
I applaud The Flash writers for taking a different approach with their internal and external conflict this season. Even though I am sure we are not done with Barry evolving as a hero, or with speedster villains, it was nice to explore a different side of The Flash and his dark alternatives.