"Why ‘Arrow’ Is The Best Superhero Show On Television"
CREDIT: The CW.
This post discusses plot points from both seasons of Arrow in detail.
On Thursday, I wrote about what Marvel is doing better than DC in its live-action properties. Today, I’m going to write about what DC is doing better than Marvel.
And that’s Arrow, the CW’s Green Arrow adaptation. Arrow‘s deep understanding of the genre it’s working in has brought the show from its procedural-y beginnings to a place where it’s one of the most fun, tightly plotted series I watch weekly — an arc that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to borrow if it wants to arrest its precipitously declining ratings.
The simplest way to understand Arrow, for those of you who aren’t watching, is as a mashup between Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That’s an august lineage, and Arrow isn’t on par with its genre-redefining ancestors. But the show is essentially a marriage between Nolan’s “dark and realistic” take on superheroes (no one on Arrow has powers) with Buffy‘s hybrid serialized-procedural structure and pretty-young-people-in-love subplots.
Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) is a Bruce Wayne-style playboy who, after surviving the murder of his father on a yacht trip, spent five years stranded on and around a hellish island off the coast of China. The island era, which plays out in flashbacks peppered throughout the series, is when Queen learned to be a deadly archer and martial artist. And I do mean deadly. In the pilot, Oliver coldly executes a thug who could expose his secret identity, saying simply “no one can know my secret.”
Arrow does not let Oliver get away with literal murder. Queen is perpetually being challenged — including by his partners in vigilantism, ex-Marine and bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey) and hilariously awkward tech genius Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) — to justify his crusade, which begins largely as a quest to clean up his father’s messes rather than a well-thought out attempt to solve Starling City’s problems. In one of show’s best arcs, Oliver meets, and briefly falls for, The Huntress (Jessica de Gouw), who takes his views on killing and revenge to their logical endpoint in her quest to destroy her father, a powerful mobster. Oliver recoils from The Huntress’ indiscriminate violence, but can’t really articulate why his extrajudicial killings are different from hers in kind rather than merely degree.
Oliver’s quickness to killing sometimes backfires. In what initially seems like poetic justice, Oliver injects the Count (Seth Gabel) — a drug dealer who earned his name by killing 52 homeless people by lethal injection to the neck while testing his new narcotic — with an impossibly large dose of his own cocktail, leaving him an insane, constantly tortured husk of a man. Oliver, who had already subdued the Count, was fueled by rage: his sister Thea (Willa Holland) had nearly died after taking vertigo, the Count’s drug, and crashing her car. But it backfires: there was so much vertigo in the Count’s system that another criminal could extract the formula from his broken body, leading to a drug previously sold only by the Count flooding the street.
Oliver’s growth as a person is inextricably linked to his growing recognition of the limits of violence. Unlike traditional DC superheroes, who seem to have a “no kill” rule only to make them seem more noble, Oliver develops his after learning on screen that blunt violence can’t solve broader social problems. This is one of Arrow‘s many clever nods to the comics: Green Arrow is a famously left-wing hero who spends one classic run debating the merits of radical social change with Green Lantern. Oliver’s evolution as a superhero is linked to his growing social consciousness, directly tying the main character’s growth to the show’s central themes of the morality of violence and social inequality.
The inability to similarly match theme to character is one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s central shortcomings. Alyssa identified S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s failure to deeply examine the themes it casually raised as the show’s most frustrating feature around episode 2, and it hasn’t gotten better. Though the showrunners have done a nice job since showing how the initially disparate characters have come to work together as a team, not one of them has been particularly well-defined as an individual. That’s both a cause and a consequence of the show’s failure to engage with its ideas. How characters respond to thematically-linked challenges deepens their identities, while richer characters necessarily create opportunities for richer themes.
The shallowness of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s agents also highlights another area where it could learn from Arrow: generating stakes. While S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t force characters to face the consequences of their actions, Arrow makes Oliver’s battles viscerally real. Season 1’s main villain, Malcom Merlyn (John Barrowman) murdered Oliver’s father and coerces his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson) into helping him destroy Starling City’s poorest neighborhood by threatening Oliver and the rest of the Queen family. Merlyn’s the mirror of Oliver: an archer whose his crusade is driven by revenge (his wife was murdered in a random robbery) and a theory about the causes of crime (the moral character of the poor). He’s also Oliver’s physical equal, and beats the hero brutally twice before Oliver kills him.
But Oliver’s victory over Merlyn is pyrrhic at best. Merlyn outsmarts Oliver, hiding a backup device from Oliver’s allies that destroys a good chunk of Starling City and kills hundreds of its poorest. The ramifications are enormous. Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), Oliver’s best friend and Malcolm’s son, dies in the earthquake, but not before he can tell Oliver that he believes his best friend to be a murderer. Tommy’s death crystallizes Oliver’s growing qualms about killing, and serves as the main catalyst for Oliver’s adoption of the no-kill rule in the second season. Moira confesses to helping plan Malcolm’s scheme, disguised as a natural disaster, in attempt to start an evacuation from the targeted area. Moira is currently on trial, facing the death penalty. Her imprisonment forces Oliver to take over the family company — a move that gives him opportunities to start exploring other, more systemic avenues for social change beyond vigilantism.
Arrow‘s major villains matter, is the point: they challenge Oliver both as a person and a hero, and don’t leave without a major impact on the characters viewers have come to feel for. So this year, when populist alderman Sebastian Blood reveals himself to be organizing some kind of drugged-up underground army, you fear both for what his political machinations could to Oliver’s civilian life and the threat his forces his pose to the vigilante. The threat is simultaneously unpredictable, in that it could strike at any of Oliver’s weak points, and severe.
There are more things that Arrow does right. It smartly plays on the audience’s knowledge of comics, introducing villains like Slade Wilson/Deathstroke and Shado as allies during Oliver’s time on the island, building anticipation for an eventual schism. It expands its world deliberately, referencing places like Nanda Parbat only to later link it to a series of major plot developments. And it’s funny, to boot.
Now, Arrow doesn’t do everything well. It’s never been clear what Oliver’s love interest, attorney Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), is supposed to be doing at any point on the show. That’s a huge problem, because she’s fated by comics to become Green Arrow’s spouse, world class hand-to-hand fighter Black Canary.
Maybe the show will pull another Nolanesque change to the mythology. But Arrow has invested too much time and energy into foreshadowing Laurel’s transformation that it’s hard to see how they could do that without running a major plot aground.
But Arrow doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. Or, for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a role model.