More than a year ago, when the producers of The CW's "Arrowverse" were brainstorming ideas for their next animated spinoff, they thought they'd found a concept as detached from reality as alien invasions or a zombie apocalypse. The antagonists for Freedom Fighters: The Ray would be Nazis from Earth X (a parallel world in DC Comics' Multiverse), who had won World War II and ruled with a fascist, authoritarian grip.
Flash forward to this past summer, just as Arrow executive producer Marc Guggenheim and his team were putting the finishing touches on Freedom Fighters, and the appalling white nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought Nazis back into the real-world conversation. Around that time, Guggenheim and the producers of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow were considering including Earth X in their annual live-action crossover event.
"There was like a two-minute period where we asked ourselves, are we [just] hitting some hot button?" Guggenheim recalls. "But very quickly we moved on from it, because I don't look at Nazis as a political issue. There's no controversy: They're evil. Period, full stop, done."
The resulting four-part "Crisis on Earth X," which featured Nazi versions of Green Arrow and Supergirl, aired November 27-28 on The CW, winning mostly praise from fans and critics. Freedom Fighters: The Ray, which premieres Friday on the CW Seed streaming service, expands on this horrific dystopia, as seen from the perspective of The Ray, an openly gay hero who was played by Russell Tovey in "Crisis."
The Ray, who can control light and create energy blasts (among other powers), is a refugee from Earth-1 (the central world of Arrow and The Flash). "This is a character that's been around [in the comics] for decades," Guggenheim says. "There have been a ton of incarnations of The Ray over the years. But he wasn't interesting enough to me until we gravitated toward the version that Grant Morrison came up with for Multiversity [a 2014-15 DC miniseries]. The Ray was a member of a group of superheroes fighting Nazis on a parallel earth, and what made them interesting was that they were all members of different oppressed minorities."
The other Freedom Fighters include Black Condor, Phantom Lady, Dollman, and Red Tornado. In addition to battling the Nazi doppelgängers of Arrow and Supergirl who were seen in the crossover, the team will face Blitzkrieg, Earth X's version of the Flash. (Supergirl star Melisa Benoist guest-stars as Overgirl, and The Flash's Carlos Valdes shows up as Vibe.)
Though there are several well-established queer characters in the Arrowverse — including White Canary, Mr. Terrific, and Alex Danvers — "we've never done a powered metahuman superhero who's gay," Guggenheim points out. "It's nice to be able to explore something new."
Similar to Vixen, their previous animated spinoff, The Ray, "is a classic superhero origin story with a twist: Superhero gets his powers, learns how to use them responsibly, goes on an emotional journey, and ultimately commits himself to being a better hero and a better person," Guggenheim says. "The twist of it is, our Ray gets his powers from The Ray from Earth X."
A different voice actor originally recorded Ray's dialogue, but after Tovey (whose credits include the British Being Human, Looking, and Quantico) was cast for the live-action crossover, he was recruited to take over the part. In addition, the animation was tweaked so the character's appearance resembled Tovey's. As a result of this extra work the show's premiere needed to be delayed, "but I would say that was time super well spent," Guggenheim adds.
And a warning to continuity purists: Though Freedom Fighters is technically set before "Crisis on Earth X" (we'll learn how Ray ended up on Earth X), it doesn't line up perfectly with what we saw in the crossover. "One of the things we've always strived to do, and we've been successful up to this point, is making sure that all the ancillary things, the animated series, the novels, the comic books, all fit within the established [Arrowverse] continuity," Guggenheim says. "And this is unfortunately one of those situations where that didn't happen. There's some overlap continuity-wise, but there are also some pretty massive inconsistencies."
To rectify that, Guggenheim would like to find some time on his busy schedule to write a comic for DC to reconcile those differences. "My hope," he says, "is that at some point I can come up with a good story that will make it fit together again."
All six episodes of Freedom Fighters: The Ray premiere Friday, December 8, at cwseed.com and the CW Seed app.