The CW’s Flash: Ethical Considerations

Most of those who are comic book fans will definitely have heard of the show currently airing on the CW (actually, I lied, it’s currently on its midseason break) known as The Flash. For the sake of brevity, The Flash is a superhero show, coexisting in the same universe as the one established by another acclaimed superhero TV show on the CW, known as Arrow, which depicts the rise of the Green Arrow. The Flash follows the character Barry Allen (played by Grant Gustin), who gains the power of super speed and uses this to battle against less law-abiding individuals who have also attained superhuman abilities. Allen is also styled by the epithet of Scarlet Speedster and, more commonly, The Flash.

Currently nine episodes into its second season, The Flash is a juggernaut when it comes to ratings, and until the rise of Marvel Netflix TV shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones this year, was undisputably the king of comic book TV adaptations – a title it is very much still in contention for. However, disturbing questions have been raised, and I can remain silent no longer.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ONWARD; you have been warned.

In his streak of vigilantism, The Flash has come across several superpowered individuals. Such individuals were deemed by Allen and those aware of his identity as too dangerous to be imprisoned in regular prisons. After all, how could a conventional prison hold a man who could turn himself into gas, or change themself into any person they touched (think Mystique from X-Men, but more limited), or release fiery blasts from their hands? What about the metahuman (the term designated for superhumans in the show) who can control the emotions of any individual they’re in close contact with?

Quite obviously, they can’t. And so, all throughout the first season, and continuing into the second season as well, The Flash has had Team Flash deal with these metahuman criminals by summarily throwing them into specially designed prison cells capable of holding them. However, if one has seen the show, they would be aware of several things.

First, that due process has been completely ignored. Due process is the legal requirement that the state must respect all legal rights owed to a person – presumption of innocence, ability to call upon a lawyer, basic human rights. And so on. Presumption of innocence is quickly negated, since many metahumans are caught committing crimes in public. What irks me however is how the showrunners have crafted the series in regards to the treatment of its criminal metahumans. Because you see, the Flash, the fastest man alive, the hero of story…is actually imprisoning his criminals illegally. His foes do not enter the US government’s judicial system. Instead, they are illegally kept in a covert detention centre, in cells with dimensions I would estimate at most to be of dimensions 3 x 3 metres. These cells lack any furniture such as beds, any bathrooms, and it can be safely assumed that they’re not let out for exercise.

The Flash’s extrajudicial methods, whilst justified in much of the first season – in light of the fact that law enforcement was neither equipped to deal with these new criminals, nor were they even aware of the existence of powered humans for much of said season – are becomingly increasingly less so in its second run. In season two, the world is now well aware of the increasing prevalence of powered individuals – indeed, the Flash even gets a day dedicated to himself for saving Central City (his home), and a task-force is specifically set up by the CCPD in order to combat powered criminals. Why then does the Flash continue to maintain his illegal prison?

One could argue that he is afraid that the less scrupulous members of the US government – Amanda Waller, for example, a woman serving in American black ops – might take advantage of these criminals for their own purposes. And until season 2, that was a real possibility. But now the existence of metahumans is public knowledge. Why should Team Flash not arrange for the building of a prison specifically designed to hold metahumans? Now that the public knows about powered individuals, it’s a simple matter of public record – and of course, a small measure of trust in the media to scrutinise said hypothetical prison’s development, including its inmates. With such pressure, any untoward incidents such as Amanda Waller disappearing an inmate for a black ops mission is much less likely to succeed.

Nor are there any mentioned instances of Team Flash providing them with diversions such as reading, or simple conversation. I feel compelled to bring to your attention that solitary confinement is for all intents and purposes, regarded as a form in torture in many countries. Research has shown mental health issues like PTSD, anxiety, and depression can in fact be exacerbated, and very possibly even be brought to life by solitary confinement. Make no mistake, this is Guantanamo Bay, The Flash edition.

See, the thing about humans is that by nature we are social creatures. Yes, even comic book nerds like myself. It’s not just something we like to do. It’s a need. It’s something we need just as much as the air we breathe, the water we drink. Without the outside stimulus of interaction with someone else, our minds turn inward, devouring itself. Research even suggests that the human brain can have noticeable changes in structure and chemistry with only a few weeks of solitary confinement. The potential results are…not pleasant. Paranoia. Hallucinations. Panic attacks. Self-harm.

And whilst I’m on the topic of Team Flash’s moral indiscretions – what happened to the concept of informed consent? In episode 4 of season 2, called ‘The Fury of Firestorm’, Team Flash is hunting down a potential partner for an ally to maintain the stability of his existence (else he turns into a nuclear bomb). Whilst searching for such a partner, the Flash takes it on himself to surreptitiously sample the blood of all potential partners – the list of which was compiled only by deliberately, shamelessly flouting patient confidentiality. It’s a matter of life and death, they say! Yes. However: Team Flash is composed almost entirely of scientifically learned individuals. They should be well aware of their unethical conduct. And the core of bioethics can be very succinctly summarised as being based on informed consent – full disclosure of all procedures involved, the risks to the patients, and, of course, having the patient’s permission.’Team Flash seemed to feel free to skip most of these steps. The affair ends disastrously with a rogue metahuman awakening his powers, which, compounded with his anger issues, lead him to go on a rampage. Furthermore, they end up imprisoning the rogue metahuman to intimidate him into silence before they decide to let him go free.

Superheroes exist not only because they’re fantastical, but also because they embody the qualities we expect in those who uphold the law – for example, the alien known as Superman. They exist to inspire us, to believe that justice will be done, to hold fast to our faith in our morals.

The CW’s Flash doesn’t really do that all too well.

It’s possible that I’m reading far too much into this. But is it really too much for me to ask that a hero have a decent code of ethics, or am I just a person shouting at their screen? In any case, I can only hope that the showrunners will addressThe Flash’s ethical standards at some point in the near future.

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2 comments

    1. Yeah, especially in episode 12 or so of The Flash’s second season when Wells revealed he was coerced to work for Zoom. I mean, sure, they feel betrayed but is that ANY reason for a police officer – a supposedly moral pillar, by all accounts – to strike an unarmed, surrendering man? He was clearly going to comply, but West just went ahead and struck him anyway. I’m not sure if that was clever social commentary, or just poor writing…

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