For the last decade and a half, as superheroes have migrated from the pages of comics to the very heart of mainstream pop culture, they've been almost exclusively the purview of feature films. This despite the fact that the long-running, episodic, open-ended comics medium and the bite-sized film medium map very poorly onto one another, a disconnect that has told in what passes for most superhero films' plots. So the X-Men films have warped an ensemble story into a star vehicle for one character, the Marvel films have uniformly sketchy plots and forgettable villains, the Spider-Man films remain, even before the unnecessary reboot, caught in the gravity well of their hero's origin story, and the Superman films have simply failed to take off. Only Christopher Nolan's Batman films, for all their problems, have managed to tell an actual story, and even then, it's a story that tends towards its hero's abdication of his heroic role, not his continuing adventures. Television seems like a much better fit for superhero stories, to the extent that superhero conventions have been showing up in procedural TV series for years--Angel and Person of Interest both have a great deal of Batman in their DNA, for example. And yet with one glaring exception, attempts to translate existing comics properties into television series have fizzled and died, while original superhero series like Heroes have found themselves stranded in a no man's land between the two mediums' conventions.
That glaring exception is, of course, Smallville, whose long shadow (quite literally--it's terrifying to think this, but it holds the record for longest-running American genre series) might have something to do with the chilly reception that other attempts to port comics characters to TV have met. It's certainly a big part of the reason that I was so singularly unimpressed with the pilot for Arrow, a show that, now in the middle of its second season, might just prove to be another exception to the no superheroes on TV rule. In its pilot episode, Arrow seemed to indulge in all of Smallville's (and the CW network's, the home of both shows) most annoying traits--blandly handsome, wooden leads, an emphasis on romance as overbearing as it is puerile, overheated emotions declared in too-obvious speeches, a tangled backstory involving the hero's father, and an aversion to the supposedly campy tropes of the comics, like costumes and catchphrases, that does absolutely nothing to make either show seems mature or realistic. In the year and a half since this violently negative reaction, however, Arrow has slowly gained in popularity and acclaim, which finally encouraged me to give it another look. What I found was a series that, while still suffering from a lot of CW-ish flaws, is nevertheless a lot better and more enjoyable than anyone watching its pilot could ever have hoped. More importantly, Arrow is a series that actually takes advantage of the television medium to do something comics-like, and uses it to offer a genuine engagement with the superhero concept.
Based on the lesser-known DC character the Green Arrow, Arrow begins with the return of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) to his home of Starling City, having been cast away on an island for five years after being shipwrecked while sailing with his father, billionaire industrialist Robert Queen (Jamie Sheridan). The reactions to Oliver's return are decidedly mixed--his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson), sister Thea (Willa Holland), and best friend Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell) are overjoyed but also unsure how to cope with the changes in his behavior and personality, while his former girlfriend Laurel (Katie Cassidy) and her father, police detective Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) are incensed, since Oliver went on the ill-fated trip with Laurel's sister Sarah, whose loss has decimated their family. Oliver, meanwhile, has returned to Starling City with a purpose, a list of names bequeathed to him by his father of people who have failed Starling City--corrupt politicians, embezzling bankers, slum-lords and mobsters. Though by day he continues to play the shallow, hardy-partying playboy he was before his ordeal, by night Oliver poses as a vigilante known as The Hood, using the archery and martial arts skills he learned on the island to hunt these people down and force them to atone for their sins--or, if they refuse, simply kill them.
This is, to say the least, an unpromising beginning. The show's premise is, at one and the same time, too reminiscent of Batman (in particular, Nolan's Batman Begins, a similarity that persists throughout the first season) and steeped in a sub-Occupy rhetoric that feels exploitative and skin-deep. The fact that Oliver seems not only to have survived on the island but to have become a super-soldier on it (it is strongly implied, for example, that the timing of his return isn't coincidental but a choice, and that he could have arranged for his rescue to happen far sooner than it did), promises a Lost-like missing backstory--which is to say, a show more interested in filling in the missing pieces of its past than in developing its story and characters into their future--which is indeed doled out in flashbacks interspersed with each episode. The show immediately begins teasing the resumption of Oliver and Laurel's romance, in the time-honored fashion of establishing a love triangle between them and Tommy, which would be groan-worthy even if it didn't require us to ignore the surely insurmountable obstacles to such a reconciliation. Most importantly, the fact that Oliver is an unrepentant killer--and not just of the people on his father's list, but of their henchmen and lackeys--is shocking and unpleasant, all the more so because he is so unconflicted about it. The impression formed is of a show trying to trade on Smallville-style soapiness, Batman-style darkness, and the hot button issues of the day without any real sense of what any of these components mean in themselves, and of what kind of story it wants to tell.
And yet, as the first season draws on, Arrow steadily improves into a compelling, engaging series. Partly, this is simply a matter of execution. After a dozen or so forgettable one-percenter-of-the-week episodes, the show's storytelling kicks dramatically into gear, barreling through plot twists and complications with little in the way of narrative dead weight. Visually, too, Arrow is impressive, utilizing what must be a limited budget to deliver top-notch, masterfully shot and choreographed fight scenes. Whatever the show's narrative failings, after the middle of its first season, it is never boring to watch.
At least one of those narrative failings, however, Arrow's seemingly muddled definition of heroism, turns out to be a deliberate choice. "To save my city," Oliver tells us in every episode's opening narration, "I must become something else." It takes a while to realize this, but Arrow's central thesis is that Oliver has no idea what that something else is, and that he is making many mistakes and wrong turns on his path to figuring that question out, and to becoming an actual hero. That Oliver's original mission in Starling City, crossing off the names in his father's list, is unheroic both in concept and execution is something that is repeatedly drummed into us--through Detective Lance's disgust at the carnage he leaves behind him, but even more than that, through Oliver's own inability to defend it. When other vigilantes emerge in Starling City, either independently of Oliver or in emulation of him, he moves to neutralize them without ever being able to articulate, to them or to himself, just what makes his vigilantism different and justifiable.
When, over the course of the first season, other people learn Oliver's secret, their initial reactions are almost invariably dismay and rejection. The first of these is John Diggle (David Ramsey), Oliver's driver and bodyguard, who is brought into the fold early on. Diggle's induction into Oliver's team would be a welcome change if only because it gives Oliver someone with whom he can discuss his nocturnal activities, thus eliminating the tortuous voiceovers that plague the show's first few episodes, but he quickly becomes one of Arrow's most important components. Though his initial reaction to learning Oliver's secret is to declare that "You really did lose your mind on that island" and call him a criminal and a murderer, Diggle comes around to Oliver's arguments that Starling City needs extra-legal protection from the predation of people too rich to be touched by the law. But he continues to challenge Oliver's ideas of how that protection should look, encouraging him to look past the straightforward mission of his father's list and address crime wherever he finds it. Later in the season, the team is joined by techie Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), who also declares her ambivalence towards Oliver's methods, and agrees to help him and keep his secret only in exchange for his help on her own project. Though that thread is underplayed for the rest of the season--Felicity quickly buys into the vigilante party line--it's her focus on this alleged side project that leads Oliver to discover the season's central villain, and takes him to the next level on his journey towards true heroism.
The most important character to discover Oliver's secret in the first season, however, is Tommy. Arrow places trauma, the recovery from it and the failure to recover, at the center of most of its character work, suggesting, for example, that Oliver's experiences on the island--where he encountered a host of violent enemies and was forced to endure and commit heinous acts in order to survive--make his difficulties in reintegrating to his old life not dissimilar from those of a soldier returning from war. The rest of the cast, too, is coping with their own traumatic experiences--Diggle is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and is also reeling from the death of his brother; Laurel and Quentin are still picking the pieces up from Sarah's death and the destruction of their family; when Oliver challenges Thea for acting out, she reminds him that "my brother and my father died... you guys all act like it's cool, let's just forget about the last five years. Well I can't. For me it's kind of permanently in there." That trauma, the realization of the world's fundamental unfairness and of their own smallness and vulnerability before it, is what lies at the heart of most of the characters' willingness to at least consider that the vigilante is a force for good, so Tommy, as the only member of the cast who is relatively un-traumatized, plays a vital role as the voice of normalcy and sanity. Unlike Diggle and Felicity, he can't talk himself into Oliver's point of view, decisively declaring that Oliver is "a serial killer" and eventually cutting off their friendship. Before that happens, however, Arrow puts us into Tommy's headspace, in an episode in which he's forced to bribe a city official who wants to investigate Oliver's lair, which lies under the nightclub they've opened together, and then stall the police who want to search it. The episode makes it clear how seedy and underhanded these actions seem to Tommy, and all to protect a friend whose compulsions he neither respects nor understands.
Of course, Arrow isn't Watchmen. Even in its early episodes it ultimately comes down on Oliver's side, and is clearly moving towards a wholehearted embrace of his vigilantism. But the format of a television series gives the show more room and time to build up to that point organically, and in unexpected ways. When we watch a Spider-Man movie, we know that Peter Parker's uncle Ben will die because of Peter's indifference. What should be a defining, life-altering trauma becomes just another set-piece to get through before the actual story can start. Arrow, because it's taking such a long, meandering path through Oliver's origin story, can embroider it in interesting ways--as when Oliver forms a bond with a woman who, like him, is stalking the streets at night killing criminals, going so far as to invite her on his crime-fighting escapades, only to realize that she lacks even his flawed judgement and self-control.
Arrow allows characters like Diggle, Quentin Lance, and Tommy room to express their disapproval of Oliver without him having a good answer for them, because at that point in the show's story such an answer doesn't exist. More importantly, it allows him to learn from their criticism and slowly refine his idea of what the "something else" he wants to be actually is. Tommy's rejection of Oliver in the first season leads him to reconcile with his estranged father Malcolm (John Barrowman), who turns out to be the season's main villain. This eventually leads to Tommy's death, an event that so shatters Oliver that he leaves Starling City and goes back to the island--as bold a declaration of his failure to reintegrate into his old life and find a place for himself in it as he could possibly make. When he returns, Oliver announces a new mission, one of heroism and personal example rather than vengeance and violence, but his progress towards achieving that goal has been haphazard. He resolves to stop killing, but already in the first half of the second season there have been occasions on which he's been unable to keep that resolution; he changes his moniker from the Hood to the Arrow, but most of the citizens of Starling City use the two names interchangeably, and some still call him simply "the vigilante." This suggests a series in which it might take several seasons for Oliver to become the Green Arrow that comic book readers know, and one in which we can be privy to the process of developing that character's image and credo.
Somewhat less successful, but still quite interesting, is Arrow's handling of class. One of the few things I did pick up about the comics' Green Arrow is that he's considered the left-wing answer to Batman, and especially in the current political climate, in which the fascism of the Nolan Batman films has been getting more and more pushback as people notice how problematic it is for a billionaire to go out at night and attack poor criminals, there's space for a story in which the Batman analogue is focused on systemic, economic crime. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, Arrow's social consciousness initially seems skin-deep, but as the first season draws on it becomes clear that issues of class are baked into every aspect of the show's world--in which the class war is a literal one, with the privileged classes drawing first blood. Malcolm Merlyn turns out to have been the leader of a group, which also included Oliver's parents, of rich people who have felt the sting of street crime in Starling City--Malcolm's wife was murdered by muggers outside the free clinic she established in the Glades, Starling City's worst neighborhood; another member's daughter was raped. In a Batman-style story, these people would be the heroes, cleaning up the streets of riffraff and scum. In Arrow, they're the villains, who have failed to realize that their suffering is a symptom of a disease they've helped cause, and whose proposed "solution," dubbed The Undertaking, is to level the Glades and kill its inhabitants. Despite his best efforts, Oliver is only able to partially prevent the Undertaking; at the end of the first season, a large segment of the Glades is destroyed and hundreds of people are killed.
As I've said, there are some obvious similarities here to Batman Begins, which revolves around a plan by the League of Assassins (who also appear as villains in Arrow's second season) to destroy Gotham because they perceive it as hopelessly corrupt, and believe, as Malcolm Merlyn does of the Glades, that "it can't be saved, because the people there don't want it to be saved... They deserve to die. All of them." As in Arrow, that plan is only partially successful, encompassing only the Narrows, Gotham's own bad, crime-riddled neighborhood. The difference between Arrow and Nolan's Batman films, however, is that after Batman Begins, the Narrows--whose inhabitants were driven mad, but not killed, by the League of Assassins's neurotoxin--are never mentioned again. In Arrow, the Glades, and the aftermath of the Undertaking, remain a central component of the show. In response to the outrage of the Undertaking, some of the citizens of the Glades respond by emulating their supposed champion, forming posses of masked vigilantes who set out to murder the alleged architects of the attack, or simply the random rich. Some of the comic's central villains emerge as a direct response to the Undertaking, most prominently Sebastian Blood (Kevin Alejandro), a mayoral candidate who has made retaking the city for its ordinary citizens his rallying cry (and is using Oliver and his family as whipping boys to rally support to his cause), even as he amasses an army of super-soldiers for some as-yet undisclosed purpose.
As refreshing as it is to see class issues addressed so baldly on American TV--and in genre TV, no less--Arrow's handling of these issues often leaves something to be desired. It is, for example, enormously problematic that the only reaction to the Undertaking to emerge from the Glades is a villainous one. Even more of a problem is the fact that the voices of ordinary Glades citizens are almost entirely absent from the show. Arrow does a good job of humanizing the Undertaking's architects: Malcom Merlyn is believably damaged (or, again, traumatized) by his wife's murder, and is shown to justify his monstrous actions by claiming to be protecting his son (when a shocked Tommy protests at his father killing a disarmed opponent, Malcom explains that he killed the man "as surely as he would have killed you"); even more interesting is Moira Queen, whose participation in the Undertaking is grudging at best--she knows that Malcolm is responsible for the sinking of Robert's yacht, and he has threatened Oliver and Thea--but who fails to grasp, until it's very nearly too late, that she has a responsibility to the hundreds of other families who are also in danger. But, perhaps predictably for a series whose champion of the oppressed is himself a billionaire, the voices of the ordinary citizens of the Glades are entirely absent from Arrow's second season. When Moira is acquitted of murder for her role in the Undertaking (an acquittal that, we later learn, was orchestrated by Malcolm, who intimidated the jury), we see Oliver's ambivalence about the verdict, but not the outrage of the people whose homes she helped destroy and whose loved ones she helped kill.
Nevertheless, Arrow is committed to the notion of crime as a social, rather than individual, problem, and of economic crime as being equally destructive as street crime, if not more so. It's particularly notable that even at his most unheroic moments, Oliver can be remarkably sympathetic towards people who are driven to crime, much more so than Diggle, who encourages him to address street crime (which Oliver dismisses as "a symptom") but also takes a much more black and white view of it. When Oliver investigates, at Diggle's urging, a bank robbery that left a cop critically injured (even in his later, crime-fighting incarnations, Oliver doesn't really care about property crime), he discovers that the thieves are a family who fell on hard times after his father closed the factory where their father was employed. Though Diggle insists that the robbers are guilty regardless of their misfortunes, Oliver tries to reason with the older man, and to give him an out that would prevent any further robberies without the family going to prison. At the same time, Arrow doesn't shy away from the fact of its main character's privilege, and how it can blind him. There's a strong sense that Oliver's certainty that his vigilantism is justified (while other vigilantes must be stopped) is merely an extension of his pre-island personality, the spoiled rich kid who could have anything he wanted and hadn't heard the word "no" often enough. And in the second season, when Oliver arranges for Felicity and Diggle to be close to him in his everyday life by making them, respectively, his assistant and driver, it falls to them to remind him how humiliating these subservient roles are for people who, in reality, are his partners and allies.
For all the good things I've said about it, I wouldn't want to oversell Arrow. This is still a CW show, which can mean soapy storylines, too-obvious dialogue, and some infelicities in the writing. In Arrow's case, a particular problem are the island flashback scenes. Though they've grown more interesting as the show has progressed, and introduced some appealing characters--most notably, Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett, best "known" as the Hobbit films' Azog), a mercenary who becomes Oliver's friend and mentor, but with whom he had a bitter falling out--these sequences are still rather inelegantly presented, dumping a portion of backstory into each episode with little attempt to tie into the present day events or maintain an even pacing. Another sort of problem is the show's diversity, or lack thereof. In its rich neighborhoods and its poor ones, Starling City is almost uniformly white, and there's no sense that it contains ethnic enclaves--black characters, like Diggle or Moira's second husband Walter (Colin Salmon) seem to exist in isolation, not as part of a community. And perhaps most importantly, as the show has drawn on and as Oliver comes closer to his destiny as the Green Arrow, its rooting in real world economic issues is beginning to fade. However problematic Oliver's mission against one percenters was in the first season, it did have real world implications. In the second season, his enemies are more and more often comic book villains, whose roots in socio-economic issues are growing more difficult to discern.
Nevertheless, Arrow is still worth a look--for a fun story, for good action scenes, for compelling characters (I've said little here about the acting, but Amell in particular has surprised me by growing into his role, ably conveying the many facets of Oliver's personality and his emotional journey as he rejoins the human race). Most of all, for its handling, however flawed, of class issues, and for being, at least for the moment, the most interesting live-action treatment of a superhero story, in film or TV.
Lesser-known, that is, to people like myself, who get their superheroes through cultural osmosis and film/TV adaptations, not comics--where the Green Arrow is, I gather, a central figure. A lot of the discussions I've seen of Arrow have focused on how the show adapts its source material and how beholden it feels to it, but my interest is in the series as its own entity.↩
Other reviewers have referred to this breakneck pace as Arrow learning the lesson of The Vampire Diaries, another CW series that overcame an inauspicious premise and pilot by being fearless with its plotting, but since I never gave that show a second chance, my frame of reference is a little different--the show that Arrow reminds me of, whenever I look up to realize that so much has already happened and yet we're barely at the middle of the episode, is Scandal.↩
In general, Felicity is Arrow's most problematic character, a fact that surprised me since one of the few things I knew about the show going in was that she was a fan favorite. Rickards is a fine performer who imbues her character with presence and verve, and her rapport with Amell is winning (it's easy to see why Oliver and Felicity have become fandom's favorite pairing), but all this only serves to obscure the fact that she has little in the way of a personality. Especially after the fig leaf of her reason for keeping Oliver's secret is done away with, it's simply taken for granted that she will stick around and continue risking death or imprisonment for no discernible reason. While most other characters on the show--even the generally-disliked Laurel, who has spent the second season in a well-earned but hard to watch downward spiral that still feels more realistic than anything Felicity has ever done--are given their own friends, family history, and interests, Felicity appears not to exist outside of Oliver and his mission.↩
For all that their political perspectives on the same story are so diametrically opposed, something that Arrow and Batman Begins have in common is that neither one acknowledges the role of government and social policy in addressing (or exacerbating) economic inequality and the root causes of crime. In the Batman films, the only department of Gotham's government we see is the police (while homeless orphan are left to billionaires like Bruce Wayne to see to). In Arrow, Oliver seems aware of how limited his power to affect society on a large scale actually is, even in his guise as the philanthropic CEO of his father's company, but doesn't make the obvious connection to agitating for welfare and pro-equality laws and policies, while Sebastian Blood, though he talks about the importance of government and is running for mayor, obviously has other ideas about how to achieve change. It's tempting to blame this on bad writing, but really it strikes me as a symptom of a larger trend in American pop culture (and culture in general), in which the role of government to do anything but punish wrongdoers is only rarely understood or admired.↩
This is also an aspect of the show in which its CW-ness works against it--though some characters, like Diggle or Thea's boyfriend Roy (Colton Haynes) are supposedly from the Glades, they look like the standard CW actor, who spends two hours at the gym every day and whose hair is professionally styled. Even more importantly, there is no sense of a cultural gap between the Glades and Starling City's upper class--Roy has no problem dressing for a party at Thea's house, or switching between the modes of behavior in the Glades and those of the Queens' mansion.↩
Another amusing example of Diggle's law and order mentality comes later in the first season, when Oliver, having realized that his mother has some connection to his father's list, confronts her in his guise as the Hood, only for Moira--alone among all the one percenters that Oliver has attacked--to pull out a gun and shoot him. Diggle's response--that Moira must be guilty if she wouldn't trust the word of a known killer who has promised not to hurt her--was rather different than mine--that Oliver clearly gets badass-ness from his mother.↩