‘Freedom Fighters: The Ray’ Review: Episodes 1-6

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I confess, I wasn’t going to watch Freedom Fighters: The Ray on CWSeed. I’d seen the teaser at the rather lackluster preview night of San Diego Comic-Con 2017, and it didn’t catch me. It featured a bunch of characters I’d never heard of before, fighting evil versions of the Arrowverse heroes in a Nazi dystopia. While I actually like dystopia/alternate universe stories, there just wasn’t enough there for me to add the show to my watch list.

But then I “met” The Ray during the Arrowverse crossover, Crisis on Earth-X, and I was so charmed by the character and his relationship with Leo “Citizen Cold” Snart (OK, OK, I gushed about it in our Feels of the Week) that I decided to check out the animated series when it dropped last week.

Now that I’ve seen it, I think I understand why DC waited until after the crossover to release it. It’s not quite strong enough to stand on its own, but it does serve as a prequel to the crossover – albeit one with some continuity issues.

The current release has six episodes, most of them about six minutes long. The animation is reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series, as is the soundtrack by Blake Neely. Both give the show a dramatic, old-movie feel.

Meet the Freedom Fighters

Source: CWSeed/Twitter

The first two episodes set up Earth-X and its Freedom Fighters: The Ray, Red Tornado, Black Condor, Phantom Lady and Dollman. Yes, that’s a lot of characters. No, you won’t have to remember all of them. 

The Freedom Fighters are trying to defend refugees fleeing the Nazis invading Tulsa, Oklahoma, demanding the city surrender its “undesirables.”

Now, this is something that I wouldn’t really have expected in a world where the Nazis had won World War II. I’d have thought that 70 years later, they’d have already swept the globe and there would not be any more “undesirables.” For comparison, consider the Seattle of 2042 portrayed in Legends of Tomorrow; a police state thoroughly dominated by ARGUS.  Seven decades after “winning,” the Nazis have managed only to push as far as America’s midsection, facing resistance every step of the way.

It’s not unlike the political situation here in the U.S., when you think about it. The Nazis may hold the physical seats of power, but true power over any nation is in the hearts and minds of its people. The Nazis don’t have that yet, so they haven’t really won yet. They just think they have.

The first two episodes also introduce the ruling Reichsmen: Overgirl, Black Arrow and Black Flash, who are the controversial evil counterparts of Supergirl, Green Arrow and the Flash. There are definitely differences between the Reichsmen of the animated show and those of Crisis. Overgirl seems to be in charge, not Black Arrow. If he is the Fuhrer, you can’t tell from this series. This Flash is not Eobard Thawne; it’s Barry Allen. Future episodes will have to reconcile these differences and explain Thawne’s presence on Earth-X.

But the important difference between the animated Reichsmen and the Crisis versions: No attempt is made to make them sympathetic. No romance between Black Arrow and Overgirl, no fatal illness for the B*tch of Steel. The Reichsmen are evil through and through, as are their helmeted minions. These Nazis do feel like a threat, unlike the Nazis of the first half of Crisis. (In our Fangirlish Roundtable on Crisis, I noted the Death Eaters of the Potterverse seemed more Nazi-like.)

Interspersed with these introductions is an ongoing battle between the Freedom Fighters and the Reichsmen, where we get to see everyone’s powers on display. But even in six-minute segments, it feels like they’re taking too long to get somewhere; specifically, to Earth-1.

A hero rises

Episode Three is where we finally get to meet the Ray of Crisis. It’s the longest installment of the series, and it’s time well spent in establishing the title hero.

Earth-1 Ray Terrill is the nervous and insecure 22-year-old doppelganger of Earth-X’s Ray. He works in Tulsa’s Fair Housing office with the Earth-1 versions of Black Condor, known as John, and Phantom Lady, whose Earth-1 name is Jenny (but perhaps she should instead be called “Underdeveloped Female Character 1,” because they don’t give her much here).

There’s a bit of indirect political commentary as Ray works with a Muslim woman evicted by her new landlord (hello, federal housing laws!), and then as the Fair Housing team is laid off by the new mayor, who doesn’t care about the people who didn’t vote for him. And there’s more direct commentary on LGBTQ acceptance as Ray tries to deal with the biggest problem he faces (besides unemployment): How to tell his conservative parents that he is gay.

That is, it’s his biggest problem until Earth-X Ray shows up in his backyard, hands him Red Tornado’s neural cortex and dies, with the atoms of his body dissolving and his power flowing into Earth-1 Ray.

Understandably, Ray freaks out and runs to his best buddy John. They learn about Earth-X from the neural cortex and then start learning about Ray’s new powers, in a sequence that, for me, evoked Star Wars, Heroes and The Greatest American Hero, with a little of Green Lantern‘s “I know, right?” giddiness thrown in for good measure. 

Once he’s got some control of his powers, Ray becomes The Ray, kicking bad guy butt around Tulsa. I enjoyed seeing his confidence grow, though it didn’t grow enough for him to come out to his family.

The light-heartedness and heroism don’t last long; the Reichsmen have figured out where their version of Ray went, and that brings them to Earth-1.

Episode 6 ends with Ray in a very frightening spot, apparently on Earth-X. It’s a good way to end this short run and whet the appetite for more, but these first six episodes fell a little short in establishing the Freedom Fighters.

Less is not more

Put together, the episodes clock in at 38 minutes. Perhaps adding another four minutes, so the whole thing equals one Arrowverse episode, might have helped to build those characters. But better use of those 38 minutes would have done it, too. The battle in the first two episodes felt overly long, with next to no depth to the Freedom Fighters. I hope they can flesh these characters out a little more in future episodes.

The story also includes a couple of appearances by the Cisco Ramons/Vibes of both Earths. The Earth-X appearances are vital to the story (although the second one felt a little too painfully long… or maybe just too painful considering what happens to this Vibe), but the peek into Earth-1 STAR Labs felt unnecessary. Perhaps it will be a plot point in a future episode.

It’s one of a few things they will have to work out if they want to settle the continuity between Freedom Fighters: The Ray and Crisis on Earth-X. There’s already press speculation about working out how Oliver became the Fuhrer instead of Overgirl being the leader. Since this is a prequel, that shouldn’t be all that difficult.

The timeline might be a little more of a challenge. The Ray of Crisis is not an insecure 22-year-old still figuring out his powers. He’s a seasoned warrior (and no disrespect to Russell Tovey – but he’s definitely not only 22 any more) who’s not afraid to argue with a Resistance general. It will be interesting to see that character growth in future episodes.

And of course, I’m eager to see Ray meet and fall in love with Leo. Olici-what? WestAll-who? ColdRay stole the romantic show in Crisis – the power of the unexpected at work!

Fighting for social justice

One more note about this CWSeed special. They also produced a PSA for The Trevor Project as a message of encouragement for LGBTQ youth. It includes some animated scenes of Ray with an Earth-1 boyfriend and being accepted by his parents. They’re lovely scenes, and it’s too bad they couldn’t have made some room for them in the show. But it’s wonderful to see these characters and talents used for this cause.

There’s no word on when additional episodes of Freedom Fighters: The Ray will be produced., or how many there will be. But when they’re released, I’ll watch.

Chalk that up to the power of the unexpected.

Freedom Fighters: The Ray is available on CWSeed.

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