You don’t get to be super without some trouble along one the way. One of the most common tropes in superhero origin stories is the trauma that sets a person on the road to greatness, whether it’s the destruction of Krypton, the murder of the Waynes in a back alley, or Tony Stark’s unpleasant acquisition of some shrapnel in his chest in Afghanistan. Usually, that trauma leads to a period of reflection and the emergence of resolve and maturity, and a generalized kind of certainty. But watching the CW’s Arrow, I’ve been struck by its very different take on this narrative. Oliver Queen certainly suffered enormously when his father committed suicide so Oliver would be able to survive the wreck of their yacht, and he emerged different from his years of training on a remote island. But rather than imbue him with a sense of certainty that carries over to us, the show is spending a lot of time suggesting that Oliver’s view of his own antics is unreliable, and in doing so, capturing a deeper sense of the trauma that turns someone into a greater version of themselves, and the unreliability that can accompany that transformation.
One of my first reactions to the Arrow pilot was that it was a nastier portrayal of superheroism than we’ve typically seen in this revival. The Avengers have bruising fights, but the only people they kill are invading alien armies, or in self-defense. Christopher Nolan’s Batman faces off against grostesquely sadistic opponents, like the Joker, but in his day-to-day patrolling routine, he normally sticks to punching people–in the most recent movie, the person who turned out to be his primary antagonist died in a car crash rather than directly at his hands. Oliver Queen, by contrast, kills people–a lot of them.
Given that Arrow is the kind of show that will dispassionately survey the fletchery protruding from an assassin’s shattered goggles, I’ve been glad to see the show reckon with the deaths that Oliver is racking up. “Oliver, you’re not a soldier. You’re a criminal. And a murderer,” Diggle tells him when Oliver makes his initial pitch to his bodyguard to join him in a crusade against the corrupt elements of their city. And in this most recent episode, Arrow used its flashbacks to explicitly address how learning to kill changes a person. As Oliver weakens on the island, his body affected by the trauma of his near-drowning, his father’s suicide, his own recent poisoning, his mentor refuses to let him eat if he won’t dispatch of his own dinner. “Please. I’m starving. I never killed anything before,” Oliver begs him before giving in and snapping a bird’s neck. It’s no small thing to graduate from never having caused a death or having any acquaintance by the violent process by which people are parted from life prematurely to killing on a regular basis. This process may be the means by which Oliver survived to return home, but it’s not clear that it was good for him.
That perspective makes Arrow a more directly dark critique of the society in which Oliver operates than some of the superhero stories that have preceeded him. While the failure of Gotham’s institutions left a void for Batman to fill, there was an extent to which he answered the still-reasonable needs of Gotham’s citizens: they wanted someone to crack down on criminals, and in the absence of the police’s ability to do that, whether via corruption, lack of motivation, or literally being trapped underground, Batman does what they’d have done otherwise. In Arrow, by contrast, Oliver goes after institutions of his town, people who aren’t causing wide-spread violence or problems, but whom he deems dangerous. Where Batman is reactive, Oliver is proactive, a much trickier moral position for superheroes, especially ones who kill rather than simply immobilize and hand criminals over to the cops.
When Laurel asks Oliver “If what you’re doing isn’t wrong, why protect your face with a hood?” he gives the same answer Batman does–to protect the ones he loves, but it reads hollower for Oliver than it does for Bruce Wayne. What’s interesting about Arrow is that it questions how much Oliver needs to do what he’s doing, how much he likes it, and, as with his conversation with Diggle about his plans to gentrify a poor, black neighborhood, the extent to which he actually knows what he’s doing, not just about one-off decisions, but about the whole enterprise. Diggle joins up with him because the other options available to him, including bodyguarding privileged brats, are worse than undertaking even an ethically questionable fight to clean up the city. But Oliver’s journey suggests that his appeal is a testament to how sick Starling City really. Rather than answering a set of legitimate needs, his bent view of Starling City is marginally better than the alternative.