In light of the heartbreaking news that DC’s Legends of Tomorrow was cancelled, we look back on how the show got so good—and why it’s such a shame it’s gone.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow was cancelled by the CW after seven seasons, and I am beyond bitter about it. It’s not even the cliffhanger that has me all bothered, which is what seems to be upsetting lots of other people—it’s not like I’m on the edge of my seat wondering who lives and who dies in this show. The Legends will always sort out their messes and get up to crazy hijinks along the way, and season 8 would have been no different. Rather, I’m upset because I wanted to spend more time hanging out with the Legends!
There has been no shortage of heart-breaking cancellations on the TV landscape of late, as the streamers nix whatever fails to appease their algorithm, and broadcast networks concede the scripted space to schedule yet another reality singing competition. But so many of those have been shows abruptly cancelled in their comparative youth, one or two seasons in, leaving us to mourn lost potential. Legends of Tomorrow is a different beast—we’ve spent seven years and over a hundred episodes with them. When Legends of Tomorrow was cancelled, it’s like our long-time friends were shipped off to boarding school without even a farewell.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is also a different beast to all of the other superhero shows on television (and good heavens, are there a lot of those now!). Superheroes thrive when they co-opt an additional genre in their storytelling, which is why we have superhero soap operas (Arrow, Flash), superhero coming-of-age stories (Stargirl, Runaways), superhero crime dramas (Gotham, Marvel’s Defenders series), and superhero homework (Marvel’s Disney+ shows). But Legends of Tomorrow was unique in that it was a superhero sitcom.
Sure, Legends of Tomorrow had lots of time travel and fantasy elements, and (unlike a sitcom) the characters actually grew and changed. But at its core, we tuned in every week to see what crazy hijinks the Legends got up to. With all the genre elements present, the hijinks were several orders of magnitude crazier than what you might find on Chuck Lorre’s latest comedy, but they were still amusing and comforting.
It’s almost impossible to recognize DC’s Legends of Tomorrow now from its dour beginnings—and I’m certain no one would have cared when Legends of Tomorrow was cancelled if the show had maintained its initial tone. After an overly serious first season (that squandered one of DC’s best villains), the show did one of the most dramatic creative overhauls we’ve witnessed in recent memory. Gone were the lead characters who weren’t working, in came fun new characters, and the show retooled itself into accepting its inherent silliness—achieving genuine emotion in between laughs, rather than instead of the laughs.
Legends of Tomorrow came at a turning point in the history of superhero television: just as the small-screen capes were beginning to proliferate in earnest, but before geeks became spoiled for choice and far more selective in what they devoted themselves to. Had Legends of Tomorrow aired two years later, no one would have given it the time of day, and it would not have survived long enough to reinvent itself—we would have seen “Legends of Tomorrow is cancelled” headlines after two seasons, tops. But when it first aired, as one of only eight superhero shows available at the time, lots of geeks were determined to watch all the superhero shows on television and stuck with it long enough for their patience to be rewarded.
Ever since its sophomore rejuvenation, Legends of Tomorrow has been consistently enjoyable. To be sure, some seasons were far better than others (the recent season 6 was among the weaker offerings), but at no point did the show get bad again. It stayed firmly between “pretty fun” and “ohmigod, best thing on television!” This is in marked contrast to its Arrowverse brethren, who oscillate wildly between great seasons of television and slogs that seemingly beg for the show to be out of its misery.
Among the many triumphs of Legends of Tomorrow is how absolutely wild it was able to get. There was no shark to jump, because this was a show where a Bollywood musical number with Jane Austen was just another day on the job. Yet as silly as things got, it never approached nihilism (the way Riverdale did, when events got so absurd that even the characters didn’t seem to care what was going on). The characters all cared deeply about each other and about what was happening, and exploring the characters and their relationships gave the show a beating heart as large as its funny bone.
The show’s cast was a revolving door, and there were instances when that served to its detriment (yes, I’m still bitter about Ray Palmer’s ignominious exit, and forever will be!). But mostly, that was a huge strength of the show. No longer shackled to keeping the same handful of characters static enough to carry many years of 22 episodes each, Legends of Tomorrow allowed its characters to grow and change. And when their arcs (or actors’ contracts) were complete, they were given a fond farewell and made room for the next generation of Legends. The show’s hundredth episode, which served as a retrospective on the many faces we’d seen come and go, delivered the point beautifully: just how many characters we’d had the privilege of loving, and how they’d changed during the show.
Other writers have already written at length about the show’s many triumphs of representation, from bisexual icon Sara Lance to the multiple Muslim superheroes played by Tala Ashe. Some fans are alleging that this was the reason for its cancellation (and certainly, cancelling this and Batwoman as the CW is exploring a sale to a conservative owner is not a great look). The truth is that the streaming wars are at least equally responsible for the show’s demise: The CW shows offered nice payouts from Netflix because they were big hits for the streaming service. But now that everyone is trying to build a moat around their content to establish their own streaming service, those license fees are leaving the picture, and that left a show with a fervent fanbase but low ratings.
Most bittersweet of all, the last season of Legends of Tomorrow was among the absolute best the show had ever done—and why it’s such a shame that DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is cancelled. Season 7 married the imaginative anything-goes energy of the latter seasons with the show’s original premise of focusing on time travel and history. The latter was a very pleasant surprise, as lately, the show was only nominally about time-traveling. It was more concerned with fairytale creatures, over-the-top caricatures of history’s villains, and the misguided digression into aliens in season 6.
In season 7, however, the show made the brilliant move to strand our beloved heroes in the past. And not just for 42 minutes plus commercials, resolving by the time the credits rolled—they stayed in the past for a good chunk of time. This allowed the storytelling to breathe, and for the show to finally address a premise it had been skirting for a long time: The past was a pretty terrible time for many people. With a team containing only one straight white man (unlike season 1, when that described fully two-thirds of the roster), these were issues our Legends were primed to explore.
And rather than the usual absolutist “must not change the timeline!” maxim, the show followed through on the questions it raised: How small a change is permissible, to make the past slightly less horrible than it was? Saving one man who was kind? Integrating a factory several years early? And so on.
I was treated to an emotional rollercoaster midway through the season when this question suddenly hit a little too close to home. In episode 103, the Legends find themselves in Chernobyl right before the nuclear meltdown—the nuclear meltdown that impacted my family, who lived nearby. Suddenly, the question of whether and how to improve upon history was no longer quite so academic from my point of view. It’s easy to say that World War I shouldn’t be interfered with because of how crucial it is to history… much less easy when your dad’s life is in question.
There are not a lot of TV shows I would trust to tackle this—and even fewer where I would want them to. But Legends of Tomorrow, with its huge heart and a familiarity built upon years together, was perfectly positioned to ponder these questions.
The show let us sit with these quandaries, and allowed the characters to debate them as well—because the answers are not simple, and can’t be found neatly in one episode. But lest anyone feared the show was forgetting its humor and whimsy, there were reality TV demons and a Jersey Shore caricature three episodes after the Chernobyl one—and that made perfect sense within the world of Legends of Tomorrow. That dichotomy, of earnestness and humor, was what became such a winning formula.
And this is what I am so bitter about missing out on: The show had finally found a perfect combination of exploring history and sticking with its prior strengths, and now we wouldn’t get to see any more of it. That stings, and we can only take consolation in knowing that when Legends of Tomorrow was cancelled, it ended on the highest of its already high notes.
Pour one out for the Legends of Tomorrow—once a Legend, always a Legend!
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Irvin K.