As 1960s psychic Criswell famously intoned at the beginning of Plan 9 from Outer Space, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” But genre television, and its comic book-based subgenre, has the peculiar ability to allow characters living in the relative present to glimpse into the future. Or, in some cases, spend a whole season revealing a future state for the characters established by their actions in the present. Take the example of Heroes’ Shanti virus story line, in which Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) learned the terrible truth about the mistakes being made in his present. Unfortunately, that story line was never finished due to a writer’s strike and Peter’s girlfriend — who traveled with him to the dark future where the virus killed millions — was erased from existence.
For the most part, shows that are able to jump to the future are also able to round out those story lines in more concrete ways. While the future is frequently portrayed as a dystopian hellhole, sometimes series manage to produce interesting realities despite the grim darkness of future events. Here are the five we think represent the best of those television show futures, even when they were the worst possible outcomes for the characters.
The seventh season of Arrow introduced a flash-forward to the “distant” year of 2040. It is a seemingly dystopian time for Star City with an added cyberpunk edge thanks to Felicity Smoak’s (Emily Bett Rickards) Archer program watching over the Glades and William’s (Ben Lewis) leading tech company offering him access to the halls of power.
To be fair, the series never had to budget to fully realize its William Gibson–esque ideas, but it was all there in dialogue. After years of being the city’s low-income hovel, the Glades found economic prosperity, formed its own municipality, voted in Rene Ramirez (Rick Gonzalez) as its mayor, and built a wall to keep out the Star City riff-raff. Omni-corportation Galaxy One set its headquarters in the Glades and, despite Rene’s leadership, seems to be the real executive force in the community. Using a version of Felicity’s security software, they also kept close surveillance on the citizenry. Late in the season, the company introduced shock troops with AI-assisted predictive combat helmets. The ideas could fuel their own spin-off if given the money to execute them on a grander scale.
Despite the modest production values, the infusion of cyberpunk ideas into Arrow worked. In fact, it was so effective that we wish the series focused more on the exploits of William, Mia (Kat McNamara), and Connor Hawke (Joseph David-Jones) instead of Oliver Queen’s (Stephen Amell) 2019 guilt-trip. Season 8 may give us what we want with McNamara and David-Jones’ recent promotions to series regulars. Alternatively, Oliver’s work with the Monitor (LaMonica Garrett) may erase Star City 2040 from the timestream.
Future: 91 Years Later
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s fifth season dedicated half a season to a future set 91 years after the season 4 finale. There, Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the rest of the team — minus Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) — discovered a destroyed Earth and a former S.H.I.E.L.D. base known as The Lighthouse standing as the last human settlement. Oh, and just for good measure, the Lighthouse was also occupied by the Kree, invited at the behest of Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) shortly after the destruction of Earth. Other shocks included an armless future version of Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), and Kasius, a hedonistic Kree magistrate played to Targaryen perfection by Dominic Rains.
For the most part, this future world was confined to the corridors of the Lighthouse. But occasional trips to other Earth fragments illustrated just how bad the End of the World could be. Intense gravity storms ravaged the remaining landmasses and critters imported by the Kree served as both guard dogs to the devastation and as a final punishment to any human who got out of line back at the Lighthouse.
Since S.H.I.E.L.D. stayed in the early 2100s for the duration of the story — except for a notable episode in which Fitz figured out a slow-motion way to get to the future — it could devote more resources to realizing that world. And it would do so with some spectacular special effects shots that made the Earth seem as foreign as any alien world visited on a space-faring TV show like Star Trek: Discovery. And S.H.I.E.L.D.’s future had time to breathe and develop characters like Flint (Coy Stewart), Kasius, and Deke (Jeff Ward), the scheming grandson of two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who remains with the show into the sixth season.
But the most interesting element of the story was the defeat of humanity itself. With the human world destroyed and the Kree arriving as conquerors, the people S.H.I.E.L.D. agents met were broken, more interested in mere survival than reclaiming their last bit of turf from aliens. It was a theme more harrowing than any production value.
When it became clear Ava Sharpe (Jes Macallan) was going to be more than an occasional foil for Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) and the Legends, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow seeded the idea that Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) was keeping a deep, dark secret about her past. But since this is Legends, her dark secret was part of an unusually bright and shiny Star City of the year 2213.
The paradise glimpsed by the Legends two centuries from now was just a really nice Vancouver housing complex, park, and nearby office building. But it established a surprisingly clear and lovely future — a real rarity on genre TV shows. There, everyone has a personal Ava, as it turns out Rip bought and modified an Advanced Variation Automation clone to serve as his second in command at the Time Bureau. Sure, this future may not be so bright and cheery for the Ava clones — or, indeed, Ava herself when she finally learned the truth — but it serves as an unusual outlier for future realities on the show.
Indeed, Legends began with an attempt to stop a grim 2042 from occurring. There, Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) was the absolute ruler of the world and Rip was forced to watch his wife and child die during one of Savage’s raids. When that future was eliminated, it was replaced with a 2042 in which A.R.G.U.S. became a totalitarian regime, persecuting Metas and non-Christian faiths with equal ferocity. Legend Zari Tomas (Tala Ashe) hailed from this grim future, which has seemingly vanished thanks to Nate’s (Nick Zano) attempts to create empathy between humans and the monsters the Legends unleashed in season 3. Perhaps his actions have brought the 2213 future in which everyone appears to have adequate essentials and commercialism seems to co-exist peacefully with the environment much closer to his own present times.
Future: One Week Later
The grim future on Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy was set to begin shortly after the first episode. As Number 5 (Aidan Gallagher) explained, his first attempt at time travel took him to a spot 25 years in his future, but roughly a week ahead of his family when he finally rejoined them. The future he glimpsed saw a dead Earth with himself as the only survivor. Unable to use his powers to return to his present, 5 spent many years alone with a department store mannequin as company. Finally, agents of the Commission arrived to offer him a job as a time-traveling hitman. And when you consider the charred wreck of world he found himself in, killing people to maintain the timeline was a definite upgrade.
Thanks to the Netflix budget, the desolation of the future was appropriately epic. From an initial smaller set of a ruined Umbrella Academy to a great sweep in some later shots, the series set up a future so bleak, you never really questioned 5’s drive to prevent it.
And unlike many of the futures we’ve discussed, the dead Earth Number 5 experienced is at the very center of the story. Even as the show prepares its second season, it is unclear if the group’s actions during the season 1 finale really stopped the Apocalypse. It may just be on pause while the group work out their issues.
Whatever issues Earth-1 faced in the early parts of the Arrowverse’s 2040s, it all seems to be resolved by 2049 — the year repeatedly visited by The Flash cast throughout season 5. Nora West-Allen (Jessica Parker Kennedy) hailed from that time. But growing up without her father Barry (Grant Gustin) meant an isolated childhood surrounded by mementos of his exploits at the Flash Museum and the less-than-comforting words of his concerned friends. She also dealt with an overbearing mother who dampened her Speed Force abilities.
As realized on the show, the Central City of 2049 seems to have escaped the darker futures glimpsed on Legends and Arrow. S.T.A.R. Labs has been fully converted into the Flash Museum and meta-abilities appear to be celebrated within city limits. Also, the town infrastructure remains in tact despite countless raids and attacks from villains looking to trip up Team Flash across the years.
It is a future which fits the more optimistic Flash, as opposed to the cyberpunk future of Arrow. It also represents the curious way in which all three interconnected Arrowverse shows look 20-odd years in the future and arrive at different conclusions. But the Central City of 2049 may not be as solid as it seems with the date of Barry’s disappearance moving from 2024 to 2019. Will that pleasant future disappear with Barry during the upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover? Time will, of course, tell.