The Short Answer: Because on television, he doesn’t need to run at the speed of light for the television series to exist and tell compelling stories. He is only as fast as he needs to be. Right now, that is twice the speed of sound and it is perfect for storytelling with an ensemble cast.
Why didn’t they start him moving as fast as he does in the comics? It sure would be convenient for getting places. At the speed of light, Barry could circle the globe seven times in one second!
As I have explained in other treatments about the Flash, he doesn’t need to be moving at the speed of light for stories to happen. This is a major boon to the how the television show works. In fact, keeping the Flash slower than he is in the comics offers a few major storytelling benefits:
- Barry always has something to strive for; he wants to get faster. When he deals with his issues during the series, most of them revolve around him being faster than he is. Since many of his enemies are either immune to his still-developing powers (Girder) or he is slower than his foes (Reverse Flash, Zoom), this gives him a constant need to improve his abilities.
- Why he’s slower isn’t clear, but we know technology, his state of mind, his belief in his ability all affect his ability to be fast. Honestly, I would like the television series to NEVER allow him to reach the speed of light unless they address his powers in a clean and succinct manner. Right now, his power is too vague and they run the risk of making him a highly unbalanced character just like he appears in his comics.
- I suspect most television shows are happy with the ensemble support team for superheroes because it allows for cast members who are regularly involved, regularly endangered, and constantly creating sub-threads for writers to weave into the story.
- A Flash who operates at two times the speed of sound is just fast enough to be fast, and yet still slow enough for stories to require support from Team Flash. The Flash is an ensemble show, mixing science, technology, teamwork, and super-speed into a unique formula for interaction.
- In most cases, I theorize the televised Flash doesn’t even need to reach the speed of sound inside of Central City. Three hundred miles per hour is more than enough to reach from one side of the city to the other in under a minute. See: How fast can the Flash run a mile?
The More Complicated Answer: If you don’t want to know more about the Flash, his powers, how they work and why the Flash is broken, you have everything you need in that first paragraph.
- If you still think there is something to be learned after that, you have been warned the reason the Flash is a flawed or broken character is because people who write the character have no true understanding of what his speed will allow.
- As such, different writers and editors have completely different takes on the character making each interpretation unique and likely never to be seen again unless that writer takes over the book once more.
There are two graphics presented whenever a comic Flash fan wants to tell us how great the Flash is. Here is the first.
Because many Flash fans presume the Flash is ALWAYS moving at the speed of light or faster just to get a loaf of bread from the store. He isn’t. From a narrative point of view he shouldn’t be any faster than he needs to be to tell good stories. Right now, twice the speed of sound is FAST ENOUGH.
Here is the second:
It is THIS particular feat which causes most Flash fans to wet their pants about how fast the Flash is. A nuclear weapon is detonated in a city. The Flash empties the city, two people at a time, moving at presumably trillions of times the speed of light.
These crazed fans figure he did this feat once, he should be able to do it ALL the time. Because he’s the Flash, and that’s what we’re paying for.
As a writer, I reject this premise completely. Let’s look at the character from a successful narrative point of view:
- If the Flash were operating at this level all the time, wouldn’t that make him an incredibly dull character as he zips through town solving problems so fast no one ever saw them.
- More important he would be completely crazy since for him, the world is motionless unless he slows down enough to let things happen in the first place.
- Such a story has taken place. In the Kingdom Come universe, the Flash never stops moving, EVER. A silent blur fighting crime in Central City but never stopping, never resting, completely alone, likely insane as well. (See below.)
Here is the most important thing to remember, the Flash can only resolve issues he can see. He does not have supervision, super-senses or other forms of super-awareness, thus he can only interact with the world at the speed of light. So he solves issues IF he can see them, sense them or have the information relayed to him so that he could take action in the first place.
Yes, we have been told this on more than one occasion when a good writer takes over the book. The Flash when moving at light speed has difficulties perceiving the world around him. It is not clear HOW he senses the world (no writer wants the responsibility for being blamed for answering this question) but some stories handle it better than others.
Even as fast as the Flash is in this scene, circling the world in under a second, the villain still manages to get away since the Flash has to be able to react AFTER slowing down. In his slower state, Inertia simply had the jump on him and escapes.
Thus the earlier mentioned nuclear event in Korea required him to run through the city and FIND every single person. People in hospitals, people in showers, people walking from work, people in any number of inconvenient situations. But he would have to scour every building everywhere physically. Most likely he is using his intangibility to move through the city until he has to grab someone and then racing them to the edge of the city.
- Yes, under duress, under specific circumstances in the comics, the Flash does move fast, really fast, so fast he violates the laws of physics and moves at the speed of light or faster.
- He is protected (and so are we) from the effects of such relativistic movement in atmosphere. He would be igniting the atmosphere and ripping the crust of the planet apart as he gained mass with ever step. I’m just saying.
- Despite most of the senior Flashes (Jay Garrick, Barry Allen or Wally West) in the comics do NOT operate at light speed (and the attendant reaction time) if they can help it. Why? Because moving that fast comes with a bump in their reaction time which slows down the appearance of the world around him.
This means when Barry is moving faster, the world is moving slower. But from his perspective, he is still thinking faster than everything around him, except for other people with enhanced reflexes and/or enhanced movement. This makes his subjective interaction with the world take longer, where for him, mentally days could pass in seconds in this subjectively enhanced state.
The comic series never deals with this psychological issue because it would be inconvenient to explain and most of the time when the Flash is moving that fast, he is also interacting with other people at that speed so he is distracted from what would be long periods of mental stress from being alone for a long time.
That’s an issue for another time.
Let’s talk about the Elephant in the room: How can anyone interact with a character who can move and think at superhuman speed?
Most of the writing related to the Flash simply doesn’t consider his powers the way most fans think his powers work. Part of this is bad writing, part of this is the poorly-managed expectations of the readers. The Flash needs to be thought about the same way you might think of any other physical object needing to achieve high speed.
- Stop assuming any Flash functions at superspeed all the time. Their minds ramp up as their speed ramps up. Their abilities are like any other athlete, they need room and time to reach maximum speed. It may be only a femtosecond, but it is still a delay no matter how small.
- As the earlier example indicates, the Flash doesn’t need much time to reach top speed but there is a brief delay depending on what he’s doing. Moving in a straight line works best for him to achieve relativistic speeds.
- If you assume comic Barry exists, when he was functioning at superspeed, in a world of NO MOTION (because at high speeds, that is exactly what the world looks like to him, almost completely still) it would be impossible for him to have a relationship to the real world that would not drive him insane.
- Instead, let’s consider him just a normal man doing normal things until he starts needing his speed. Even his speed reflexes have been shown to have to ramp up and depending on the threat, they can ramp up quickly (like when someone pressed a gun to his head and fired).
- From a psychological point of view, the Flash is depicted as a regular guy whose powers come online in proportion to the speed he is using to solve a problem.
- When he is moving at lightspeed (which takes a considerable amount of time, energy and effort) at least when most good writers write him, he is otherwise just reflexively using his power in proportion to the speed he is going. The assumption everyone makes is he can go from zero to lightspeed in NO distance. Most writers DON’T depict this.
- Most of the time he needs to ramp up, get some distance and THEN go full out, amplifying both his reflexes, his cognitive ability and his intangibility because he can’t navigate at light speed, it’s mostly just straight lines.
- Since many writers don’t know much about physics, light, the ramifications of superspeed, they just write whatever comes into their heads. The good ones intuit what I just described (Carmine Infantimo was great for describing how Barry thought and interacted at high speeds) but many writers failed to do this.
- New depictions of the Flash show him thinking ahead, watching the results of actions in his mental prediction engine and then using the least amount of effort, resolving issues at super-speed, invisibly.
- In confrontations with beings who have enhanced reflexes and hand to hand speed but NO running speed, conflicts between the two of them will occur at superspeed from the perspective of normal humans who cannot react at higher levels of reflexive movement as long as they remain in hand to hand range. Thus Deathstroke and the Flash are mixing it up at superspeed and it behooves Deathstroke to reduce the Flash’s speed and distract the Flash in order to bring his speed DOWN.
Read: Why isn’t the Flash Unstoppable – How the Flash’s Rogue’s Gallery keeps the Scarlet Speedster on his toes.
- This technique is how ALL of the Flash’s rogues keep the Flash off-balance by keeping his speed low and his reaction time closer to being Human. Under these conditions, the Flash is fast, his reflexes are fast, but they are faster as he gets the opportunity to BE faster or fight faster.
- If you assume Deathstroke has the same kind of mental speed aspects as the Flash does, when the Flash is approaching him in tight corners in close spaces, he isn’t running at light speed. He’s running at his cruising speed of about two hundred miles an hour. More than fast enough to appear invisible to most people who can’t do what he does, but well within Slade’s enhanced reflexes and prediction rates.
- Slade doesn’t just match Barry’s speeds, he calculates where he’s going to be, Barry doesn’t see a still Slade, he sees a Slade moving as fast as he is and may take his eye off the enemy due to distractions on the battlefield.
- This makes interactions with normal Humans completely reasonable as he would be driven mad if he had to suppress his mental abilities in order to eat dinner with his family or take a shower.
- He doesn’t suppress his power, it simply isn’t active. He is just a normal guy until he charges himself with the speedforce and ACTS. Dinner is just dinner until a need for speed is required. This makes him able to be tricked, distracted, mislead and even hit, if his opponent can get the drop on him before his speed is amplified and he starts fighting at higher speeds.
Truth be told, given the feats performed by the Flash over the decades, it is bizarre how often the comic works given the incredible powers the Flash possesses. But those same feats, written by different writers means the character’s powers are always different, sometimes contradictory.
Ultimately, this is just my two bits. I don’t get paid by DC to clean up their sloppy writing.
- The Flash (DC character): My son asked if The Flash moves so fast, how can he see things. How can I easily explain this?
- Who would win in a fight between Superman and the Flash? (includes a primer on The modern New 52 Flash – Quora)
- How is The Flash able to take such sharp turns at mach speeds? Wouldn’t he be affected by inertia?
- DC Comics: How can the consequences of the Flash’s speed steal be physically explained?
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