As the ‘Legends of Tomorrow’ team take their biggest jump back in time so far, could any director be better suited to making an episode that riffs on 1950s B-movies than Joe Dante?
Fine, I suppose Robert Zemeckis would be a good choice if you want to throw in a bunch of ‘Back to the Future’ gags. Still, Dante fits this bill very nicely. Even if he’s unfortunately stuck servicing a Vandal Savage storyline, at least the episode gives a good excuse for why Savage wouldn’t know or be expecting our heroes, which allows them to approach him with a clean slate.
Sometime in 1958, a group of teenage greasers go drag racing just outside the sleepy town of Harmony Falls, OR. Suddenly, one of the hot rods blows a tire and crashes. The other stops to help. Although all the kids are unharmed, they discover a glowy meteorite in the woods to the side of the road. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Vandal Savage appears and introduces himself. What an unfortunate coincidence they happened upon the rock at the same time he was looking for it.
Using the information obtained from Capt. Baxter in the last episode, Rip Hunter pilots the Waverider back to 1958. Consistent with what Rip explained in the pilot episode, many of the crew have disorienting side effects for a moment. When the ship’s computer informs them that the town has experienced a recent string of murders and disappearances, Savage seems the obvious culprit, though why he’d take to serial killing is a mystery.
Rip splits the team up to investigate undercover. Jax looks young enough to pass as a high schooler. Stein takes a job as a doctor at the local mental asylum, with Sara as his nurse. Ray and Kendra play house in suburbia. Rip himself and Snart don fedoras and pose as G-Men in town to look into the murders.
Stein has a ball revisiting the halcyon days of his youth, but not everyone is so pleased. Jax runs headfirst into the racism of the era when he flirts with a pretty cheerleader named Betty. (She was the girlfriend of one of the boys who found the meteorite.) Likewise, Ray and Kendra find that interracial marriage isn’t particularly accepted in the ’50s. Sara is so annoyed by the societal repression that she makes it her goal to convince a lesbian nurse to embrace her homosexuality and come out of the closet.
The team doesn’t need to search for Vandal Savage very hard. He walks right up to Kendra’s door and introduces himself as Dr. Curtis Knox, a physician at the asylum. Obviously, he sensed the presence of a hawkperson and was drawn to her, but he assumes that her 1950s reincarnation will have no idea who he is. Kendra and Ray play it cool when Savage/Knox and his wife (Laura Mennell from ‘Haven’) offer them a housewarming gift and invite them to a cocktail party that evening.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, a man changing a flat tire on the side of the road is attacked by what appears to be another hawkperson.
Kendra and Ray go to the party and split up. Ray snoops around in Savage’s bedroom and finds a locked metal door. Savage acts like a super-creep macking all over Kendra, to which she feigns ignorance and hopes he isn’t crazy enough to attack her in a crowded room. Luckily for her, the doctor is called back to the hospital for an emergency and has to leave the party early.
When Savage gets to the hospital, we learn that he’s been experimenting on teenagers by exposing them to the meteorite, which turns them into grotesque hawkmonsters. It was one of those who attacked the guy with the flat tire.
The next day while Savage is at work, Ray puts on his A.T.O.M. suit and slips under Savage’s locked door. In the room beyond, he finds a trunk containing Savage’s magical dagger. Ray almost gets caught when Savage returns home early, but escapes just in time and takes the dagger with him.
Cheerleader Betty has a little jungle fever and kisses Jax, during which they’re suddenly attacked by the teenage hawkmonsters, one of whom Betty recognizes as her boyfriend Tommy. In the ensuing scuffle, Betty gets slashed and badly injured by Tommy. Jax speeds away with her and races toward the hospital, but they’re pulled over by the town’s corrupt racist sheriff, who of course assumes that Jax hurt the white girl. When Jax tries to explain, the sheriff conks him on the head and knocks him unconscious. The cop hauls Jax away and leaves Betty to die. Fortunately, Rip and Snart find her and bring her back to the medical bay on the Waverider.
When they learn about the meteorite, Rip and Dr. Stein theorize that it must be the same type that hit Kendra in ancient Egypt, and exposure to the mutagenic properties of its ore is turning the teenagers into hawkmonsters. Savage is using this to develop an army of his own hawkmonsters. Does any of this make sense? Nope, but we’ll just go with it, because: Science!
The sheriff brings Jax to Vandal Savage, who injects him with meteorite juice and turns him into a hawkmonster. Uh oh!
Believing this to be her best opportunity to kill Vandal Savage, Kendra takes the dagger and pays him a visit at the hospital. She acts all flirty and tries to seduce him. Savage gives her a big sloppy kiss, but steals the dagger from her hand. He had already noticed that it was missing and expected her to come for him. (He must assume that the 1950s reincarnation of Chay-Ara regained all her old memories. At this point, he doesn’t know she’s a time traveler.)
Savage lets all his hawkmonsters, including Jax, loose to run rampant through the hospital. Stein and Snart try to hold them off. Sara springs into action and kicks ass to protect her lesbian nurse girlfriend. Ray saves Kendra and blasts Vandal Savage out a window.
Once all the hawkmonsters are subdued, Dr. Stein brings Jax back to the Waverider and whips up a “gene therapy” that instantly cures his hawkmonsterism. How convenient.
Sara tells her nurse girlfriend that she’s leaving town and kisses her goodbye. The nurse responds, “Should have known better than to fall for a ninja.” Was the term “ninja” in the American popular vocabulary in the 1950s? I doubt it.
Betty reunites with the now-cured Tommy and thanks Jax for saving him. Whether intentional or not, the scene leaves the uncomfortable impression of suggesting that she’s better off with her white boyfriend.
As Rip prepares the Waverider to leave the 1950s, the ship is attacked once again by Chronos the bounty hunter, who breaches the hull and gets inside. The ship then takes off and flies away, leaving behind Ray, Kendra and Sara, who were on their way back from the town.
The episode has some scripting and plot issues, not the least of which is that it creates a paradox by having Vandal Savage encounter the Legends (or at least Ray) in the 1950s. Therefore, he should have known about them when he met them again in the 1970s several episodes ago. For that matter, the Legends yet again have a good opportunity to take Savage out that they fail to follow-up on. After Ray blasts him out the window, that’s it. They don’t even bother looking for him again.
All of the heavy-handed political commentary about the “backwards” attitudes of the era towards race and sexuality is also laid on really thick and gets tiresome. Frustratingly, Mick’s fate from the end of the last episode is not answered, though Jax complains a bit about the team turning on one of its own members.
With that said, the episode has a fun time playing around in the ’50s setting. Even the extreme cheesiness of the hawkmonsters (especially the way they lurch around chasing the heroes) makes sense when you realize it’s a nod to the dumb 1950s monster movies that Jax talks about at the beginning of the episode. That’s exactly the sort of thing Joe Dante loves and is the reason he was hired.