Over the course of a single season of television, the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow have accomplished what it’s taken everyone in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe 10 years and 18 movies to do: track down six powerful MacGuffins that are the keys to stopping a powerful enemy from beyond who threatens life on Earth. And because this was Legends of Tomorrow, Elvis Presley helped. Of course.
With each of the five previously known elemental Totems of Zambesi (earth, wind, fire, water, air, and Anansi) accounted for and being held by either members of the Legends or followers of Mallus, everyone’s focus has turned to the last Totem. Though the Legends don’t know what the Totem is or what magical properties it has, they quickly detect that it’s the cause of an anachronism in 1950s Memphis that’s changing pop culture in the future.
Sara Lance explains that, according to a description in a newspaper report, in the new altered timeline, Memphis became a ghost town after all of the residents were taken over by a mass hysteria save for a teenaged boy: Elvis Presley. With Memphis abandoned, it never has the chance to become a hotbed for early rock and roll that crosses over into the mainstream and forever changes the trajectory of music as we know it. So, the Legends do their thing and ease on down into the past to see what’s what and set things right.
What the Legends find is a town that’s in the midst of a fascinating cultural battle about music that’s being augmented by the last totem. Also, there are ghosts. (It’s a long story.) At this point in Elvis’ life, he was already performing music in his local church, where his conservative Pentecostal minister openly condemned rock and roll.
Though some see his music as something devilish, there are plenty who are excited by the blues-inspired melodies Elvis slips into playing before the congregation. The crowd turns on Elvis, though, when his music causes the Totem in the head of his guitar to activate and react to Zari’s Air Totem, making her fly into the air—something the minister says is proof that rock and roll is evil.
The Legends deduce that Elvis’s guitar is being powered by the Death Totem, the strongest of the six, that has the capability of literally raising the dead when used properly. It’d be easy enough for the Legends to simply snatch the Death Totem and be on their way to ensure that Mallus remains locked in the cage that keeps it trapped in time, but the relic has an important connection to Elvis requiring it to stay with him. Fittingly, the Death Totem is haunted by the spirit of Elvis’ real-life, stillborn twin brother Jesse, whose presence is actually what gives the musician his inspiration to play. The ghost of Jesse refuses to leave until his brother records his first record, and the Legends reason that it’s crucial they ensure that Elvis gets his big break with a record that debuts on a local radio station.
Legends of Tomorrow uses the adventure as a chance to do its own spin on La La Land by having Nate take every opportunity to explain the importance of rock and roll to Vixen, even going out of his way to take her to the black-owned clubs where the art form was first originated.
In the end, it turns out that everyone was kind of right about the power that Elvis’ music had. The singer’s song does end up on the radio and it’s a huge hit with the local teens, but the broadcast also raises a small horde of vengeful spirits from behind the local church. After a brief battle against the wraiths and a Mrs. Pac-Man joke or two, the Legends and Elvis figure out that the Death Totem doesn’t simply summon ghosts, but can actually guide them to peaceful rests.
The ordeal ends with a mournful performance of “Amazing Grace” that sends Jesse Presley into the afterlife. With rock and roll (and Nate’s hair gel) saved, the Legends fly back into the timestream with a second-hand Soul Stone that Thanos would be embarrassed to even think about placing into the Infinity Gauntlet.
- As episodes of Legends of Tomorrow go, “Amazing Grace” is impressively ridiculous while also feeling like a clever way to make use of a historical figure like Elvis.
- Even though the bulk of the episode is set in 1954, 10 years before the Civil Rights Act, basically nobody acknowledges the fact that racism was... how to put it? Rampant and explicit. Like, yes, a levitating woman in a church is cause for alarm, but the fact that nobody seemed to notice the diverse group of men and women in their Sunday best show up for service together was all kinds of implausible.
- The ghost of Elvis’ dead twin brother haunting a guitar and then wrecking a time-traveling spaceship is inspired and probably the kind of story the Presley estate wouldn’t be down with.
- That whole business with the sound of the Death Totem’s music resurrecting Mick’s rat Axel was gross and weird and kind of charming?
- Seriously, though, Memphis has an incredibly long significant legacy of racism, segregation, and violence against black people. Legends straight up glossed over damn near all of it in the worst way possible.