Not everyone agrees with me on today’s topic, but I can’t help it. I loves me some superhero shows, I loves me some DC heroes, and the CW delivers me both of those things through a series of shows that, while flawed, I find overall much more entertaining than annoying. And while they have their own sets of recurring flaws, they lack Marvel Netflix’s habitual pacing problems, failure to understand episodic narrative, disastrous third act twists (goddamn Diamondback), and all things Iron Fist, and their annual crossovers have managed to improve year by year, setting a high bar for what superhero TV can be that The Defenders (and a certain movie) just did not manage to reach. The franchise has grown from one show trying to escape the shadow of the teen-drama-with-occasional-superheroes that preceded it to a five-show empire slightly too big for its network.
So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a five-part series chronicling the first half-decade, the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what should be called the DCW-verse, or if you prefer whimsy, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory, but remains called the Arrowverse because the internet makes bad choices.
Except for naming new road gritters in Doncaster, UK, David Plowie and The Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney. That’s brilliant.
(Don’t worry, still gonna alternate TV and non-TV blogs, I haven’t forgotten that.)
Arrow: Year One
Hard to believe it started so simply. One show, trying to bring Batman Begins to television via a different DC character that the parent company was less protective of. Yes, let’s cover that right away… Arrow is very much a Batman show, with Green Arrow (or rather a crime-fighter who grows into being the Green Arrow) replacing Batman. The switch isn’t a difficult one to make… Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne are both billionaires who use their seemingly endless fortunes to wage war on crime, sometimes with a lair and a young sidekick. There are a few key differences, though. Oliver Queen, unlike Bruce Wayne, has a tendency to go broke from time to time to change up the character. And most significant to Year One… you can have Green Arrow kill people without all of the controversies that happen when Batman does it. I mean, seriously now, Oliver… or “The Hood,” as he’s known throughout season one… racks up more of a body count in a handful of episodes than Ben Affleck did throughout Batman V Superman, even by the most liberal of estimates.
Why the body count? Well, and this is just for starters, he does use a bow and arrow. Not the easiest weapon for non-lethal combat. Not impossible, but not natural. And second, if you’ll permit some wild speculation on my part, I feel like Arrow had a large priority in its first season: don’t be Smallville. Now I could be wrong about this: Smallville was a big enough hit for the CW and its predecessor, the WB, that it ran for a decade. And it’s doubtful that anyone would have greenlit a TV show about Green Arrow of all people if Justin Hartley hadn’t made him a highlight of Smallville’s back half*. That said… if they wanted more of that, it was probably an option. They could have just spun Smallville’s Green Arrow (and probably Chloe) off instead of starting over from the beginning with Stephen Amell in a world with no Superman.
So they kept the things that made Smallville work: a blend of season arcs and villains-of-the-week, and plenty of fan service, in the form of nerd-friendly guest stars and appearances by other comic characters, which we’ll be looking at below. They abandoned almost everything else, especially Smallville’s mission statement of “No flights, no tights.” Well– he doesn’t fly. Green Arrow can’t fly. That’s not a thing he does. But instead of spending four years in high school foiling random monsters while refusing to wear a costume, Oliver’s in a green hood seeking arrow-justice against his city’s worst millionaires in episode one.
Sure it takes him three more years to start using the name “Green Arrow.” I’m not saying Arrow isn’t an origin story, it’s just a different kind of origin story. A five-year flashback story recounts Oliver’s journey from a spoiled, arrogant trust-fund kid marooned on a hostile island to the hood-wearing, justice-seeking, archery-based-vigilante we meet in the pilot, and in the first four(ish?) seasons he grows from a killer fixated on a list of names his father left behind to the true hero of Star City.
*Because Smallville wasn’t allowed to use Bruce Wayne. When Batman’s unavailable, Green Arrow is close enough.™
The Rough Spots
Now, Arrow didn’t shake off all of Smallville’s flaws, and in them, we see the biggest flaws of the Arrowverse. First off, and I feel this is a network mandate of some sort because this flaw just screams “CW,” there is a definite over-reliance on pretty people having teen-soap-style romantic drama. Now I’m not against romance in my superhero shows. I prefer the characters in my entertainments to be decent facsimiles of three-dimensional people, with hopes and objectives, rather than simply bundles of personality quirks and sunglass manoeuvres that solve murders with science. Which means that yes, sometimes they’re going to hook up and fall in love. So that’s not the issue. The issue is that the romance arcs tend to be overwrought and kinda cheesy.
In season one, that’s the triangle between Oliver, his ex-girlfriend Laurel, and his best friend and fellow trust-fund billionaire Tommy. Irresponsible Tommy and lawyer-for-the-common-folk Laurel were having an affair before Oliver came back from the dead, and former womanizer Tommy is hoping to make that a more official, ongoing thing, but he worries how his resurrected best pal will react. Oliver is still very much in love with Laurel, but there are a couple of problems. First, she is still pretty angry about Oliver a) cheating on her with her sister Sara; b) bringing Sara along with him on his doomed yacht trip to China; and thanks to that c) getting her killed* when his yacht sunk, marooning him on the mercenary-infested island of Lian Yu. Second, he is launching a plan of arrow-infested justice-vengeance, and doesn’t think he can do that and make things right with his high school sweetheart. Who, again, he betrayed pretty epically before his five years away from home**. He tries to push her away, but Oliver’s about as good at staying away from Laurel as I am at staying away from extra cheese on a pizza, so he keeps popping up in her life. It’s very Dawson’s Creek.
I assume. I have seen precisely zero episodes of Dawson’s Creek but I’m led to believe overwrought romantic drama was a thing they did, yes?
The second major flaw… there is almost always one character per series who gets savagely underwritten, and what stories they do get are cringe-worthy. This year, it’s Oliver’s sister, Thea Queen, who for the first half of the season just complains about how closed-off Oliver is, does ecstasy and the new designer drug Vertigo, and is generally a brat. She begins to improve a little as the season progresses, but overall she keeps soaking my Green Arrow show in Gossip Girl nonsense.
I also have never seen Gossip Girl but that feels apt.
*The presumed-late Sara Lance comes up a lot in season one, including a mini-arc where Laurel’s mother thinks she might be alive. Given that Mother Lance’s lead turned out to be false, I don’t think they’d decided that Sara wasn’t actually dead yet, let alone that she was coming back as a badass assassin. They definitely didn’t know she’d end up the leader of a time-ship filled with misfit superheroes. But that’s later.
**They must have known he didn’t stay on Lian Yu the whole five years. They established he was somehow a captain in the Russian mafia within three episodes, and they can’t have thought that would happen on a remote island in the North China Sea.
The Name Quirk
Not technically a flaw of the series, unless you’re a longtime fan easily disturbed by small differences. Like me. I mean, change the races, genders, or sexualities of whoever you want, but tell me Metropolis is in Kansas, like Smallville did, and I will freak out. In the Arrowverse, the little details that keep annoying me are changes to the names. Character names get changed for reasons I have never understood. Dinah Lance is the classic alter ego of the Black Canary, but on Arrow she went by her newly invented middle name, Laurel. (“Dinah Laurel Lance,” Tommy says, in a promise to fans, “Always trying to save the world.”) Star City is Starling City… although that’s a shorter leap than in the Rebirth era, where the recently renamed Star City was formerly known by the even stranger name of “Seattle.” At least when Arrow finally fixed the city name, they didn’t have to blow up a famous landmark to do it.
In three more years, they’ll introduce Curtis Holt, clearly modelled after the comics character Michael Holt. I don’t understand. There might be multiple Dinahs (her mother is also named Dinah) but no Michaels, and even if there were, there are two Rays and two Rorys… Why do they do this. I don’t get it, I don’t get it at all.
Oliver Queen is not good at heroing when we begin. Sure, he wins some victories early on. He successfully steals from the rich and gives to the poor, stops assassins, foils some bank robbers, does some minor hero stuff pretty well. Known by the press and police as “The Hood” (a name even Oliver thinks is awful, though around Christmas he rejects “Green Arrow”), he’s got a list of names of corrupt millionaires his father left him, a quiver full of arrows, and a thirst for justice, but doesn’t know the first thing about how to protect a city. He merely takes vengeance on those who betray it, never asking where the List came from and what it might mean. And by Christmas, this gets his ass kicked, as his first encounter with the Dark Archer goes brutally bad, and he learns that the List isn’t what he thought. It’s concealing a darker purpose than he ever imagined.
All of this means that the best thing Arrow did in its early days was introduce John Diggle. First he’s Oliver’s would-be bodyguard, an annoyance to be ditched at the earliest opportunity, but by episode four he’s being asked to join Oliver’s crusade. This accomplished two things: it let them drop that godawful voiceover they had Stephen Amell do in the first few episodes because they didn’t trust us to follow what was happening, and it gave Oliver a conscience. Diggle pushed Oliver to be a better hero and a better man. He is the first and still greatest of Oliver’s allies, although year one introduces a few of the others: Felicity Smoak is gradually worked into the cast, a genius computer hacker from Queen Consolidated’s IT department who fans either love or hate*. Laurel’s father Detective Quentin Lance is there from the start, who wants to put the Hood behind bars, but gradually gets drawn into helping him out. He and Oliver will have a complicated relationship for the next few years, hood or no hood. And last but not lea… actually, since he’s the only one not still on the show, I guess he technically is least… late in the season Thea meets a surprisingly nimble street thug with a heart of tarnished gold named Roy Harper, who comics fans know as Green Arrow’s original sidekick.
The boldest part of Oliver’s journey in season one, and the final example of how The Hood isn’t enough of a hero for his city? Oliver loses. He got in a fight he didn’t understand, underestimated his adversary, let rage and vengeance take the wheel, and it costs him and the city in the end. Your five year journey from castaway to vigilante may have ended when you came home, but you still gots some learning to do, son.
(Meanwhile, Flashback Oliver is just trying to stay alive and deal with the mercenary army led by Edward Fyers, with the help of an Australian soldier named Slade Wilson, a mentor named Yao Fei who betrays him constantly, but not for no reason, and Fei’s daughter Shado.)
*The so-called “fans” who hate Felicity are the second most odious and obnoxious faction of Arrowverse fandom, so side with them if you like, but know that I’m judging you for it.
The Arrowverse tends to do surprise twists with its villains, and thus far most of them have been far more successful than when Marvel Netflix tries a third-act villain-swap (the replacement villains have never been improvement, Netflix). As such, this section will be reliably packed with spoilers. Y’all been told. Anyway.
Does it get better than John Barrowman? Maybe. But not often.
Doctor Who veteran and living treasure John Barrowman plays the List’s architect, Malcolm Merlyn, yes he does have the same last name as Oliver’s best friend Tommy, no that isn’t a coincidence. They roll Malcolm out pretty gradually… first he’s just the sinister figure who created the List, and is aggravated that the newly arrived vigilante is targeting his cabal’s members. Only after establishing this did they reveal that he was, indeed, Tommy’s father and a long-time friend to the Queen family. And once we knew that… in the fall finale (last episode before the Christmas hiatus) he’s revealed to secretly be the cabal’s enforcer, the Dark Archer, the man who earlier that episode beat Oliver like a pinata.
Malcolm Merlyn is one of the better villains the Arrowverse has come up with, based on comics villain Merlyn, an archer assassin. (They leave out his ridiculous mustache, not only because covering any part of John Barrowman’s face is a crime.) His season one motivation is simple, understandable, if twisted. This is a trademark of the better Arrowverse villains. Plus menace and great performances. John Barrowman brings the performance, his mask-wearing stuntman brings the menace when the Dark Archer goes to work, and motive-wise, he’s fittingly Oliver’s polar opposite. Oliver fights a crusade against corrupt one-percenters for failing his city; Merlyn recruits corrupt one-percenters in a crusade against the city for failing him. His wife was murdered in the Glades, the poorest and most crime-riddled neighbourhood of Starling City. His solution? Reduce the Glades and everyone in them to rubble.
A monstrous overreaction, sure, no question, but in season three we do learn that his wife’s killer was a total dick. An atrocity born from grief is much easier to relate to than an atrocity born from “I just love killing.”
Merlyn’s backstory is also part of a long game the producers were playing, slipping in less and less subtle references to DC A-lister Ra’s Al Ghul, to see if they’d get in trouble. They did not. Whether it was worth it… well, that’s a year three thing. Merlyn is an ex-member of the League of Assassins, which is why he’s so good at fighting and uses arrows instead of, like, guns or something.
Fan service in the Arrowverse comes in three varieties: the good (characters from the comics and geek-friendly guest stars), the bad (characters grossly misinterpreted), and the weird (characters named after comics characters but not even vaguely similar to them). Examples? You got it, ’cause we have all three this year.
- Slade Wilson, known to comics fans as Deathstroke the Terminator, is one of Arrow’s best comic imports.
- Deadshot makes his debut three episodes in, and Arrow Deadshot is probably, no, definitely a better take on the character than Will Smith in Suicide Squad. Hm. Flash, Superman, Deadshot… is the only character the DC movies do better than the Arrowverse Captain goddamn Boomerang? Maybe Amanda Waller.
- The bank robbers Diggle uses to teach Oliver that heroism extends beyond the List are the Royal Flush Gang, DC’s go-to expendable robber villains. In the comics, the Royal Flush Gang have been taken down by so many heroes in so many cities, they eventually revealed the name had been franchised.
- Farscape’s Ben Browder plays Diggle’s ex-CO, who may or may not be someone the Hood needs to cross off the List.
- Seth Gabel, best known at the time for Fringe, makes a couple of appearances as The Count, designer of the drug Vertigo. This is a clear reference to DC villain Count Vertigo, and based (probably) on this, Count Vertigo was brought into Green Arrow’s comic. So it goes. The Count is almost certainly the most ridiculously over-the-top campy villain this series… no, this franchise has ever had. And I say this knowing that the Flash has fought both a giant, hyperintelligent, telepathic gorilla and a similarly giant man-shark. Really, only Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff is giving him a run for his money, and that’s five years later.
- Our first Batman villain to be borrowed by Arrow is Firefly, here a fireman out for revenge against the old boss who left him to die. I almost never say this, but… Gotham did this one better. Ugh. That did not feel good.
- Dinah Lance the Elder is played by Dr. River Song herself, Alex Kingston.
- Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis and Tahmoh Penikett make appearances, because BSG actors tend to hang around Vancouver (where all Arrowverse shows, if not the entire CW network, film) and are easy to cast in nerd-friendly projects.
- And one of my favourite TV villain actors, David Anders (who I became a fan of in Alias and now peddles brains on iZombie) drops by as well, as the would-be kingpin of Starling City.
Helena Bertinelli, The Huntress, was almost in “The Good.” Based on her first episode and a half, she seems to be a decent take on the post-Crisis Huntress (please don’t make me explain “post-Crisis” right now). Then in the end of her two-part debut, she turns on Oliver, and eventually goes full villain. Same thing with the Blackhawks: heroes of World War II in the books, a corrupt security firm on Arrow. They keep doing this, taking lower-tier heroes and using them as villains. I don’t get it. Expect everyone in “the Bad” to match this description.
In her third appearance, Huntress gets a comics-accurate costume… but only when she’s pretending to be a stripper. Says a lot about female superhero costumes in the 90s, doesn’t it. Yeah. Not… not great.
Edward Fyers and Shado are both key characters in a classic (if controversial) Green Arrow story called The Longbow Hunters, which was apparently influential enough that John Diggle gets his last name from the story’s author, Andy Diggle (John’s brother gets the full name, which turns out not to be the best tribute). They both became long-term recurring characters in Green Arrow lore, and other than Fyers’ mercenary background and Shado’s fondness for archery, neither of them are what you’d call similar to their comics counterparts. Fyers was ultimately his friend, for Zod’s sake, whereas he and Shado (lovers on the show) do not get along at all.
One-off villains Dodger and Drakon are also pretty dissimilar from their pre-Flashpoint (Google it if you’re so damn curious) comic incarnations.
Also worth noting here that there was, back in the 80s, a comics character named Felicity Smoak. She was a nemesis and later stepmother of Ronnie Raymond, one half of the hero Firestorm. It’s pretty obvious they just borrowed the name and nothing else. But in their defense, they didn’t know they were creating one of the series’ central characters. It just kind of went that way.
There isn’t really a crossover this year. I mean, how can there be, there’s only one show. Now, the episode when the crossovers typically happen, episode eight, is the episode where Helena Bertinelli puts on a mask and costume for the first time. But it’s also the episode where she and Oliver have their falling out and she begins her fall to full-on villainy, soooo…. wouldn’t really call it a crossover, per se.
There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go. I’ll be putting this section in spoiler text for best practice.
Oh, Tommy Merlyn. In actor Colin Donnell’s hands you had wit, charm, and were the second best friend Oliver could have had (after Diggle). The show tried to pull you to the dark side over the season, giving you more and more reasons to lash out at Oliver and side with your maniacal, poor-person-murdering father, but you never went bad. It’s a shame your storyline just got grimmer as the year went on, ’cause Donnell has a way with a one-liner that was delightful in the early episodes. See, for instance, “Have you noticed how hot your sister’s gotten? [very brief glare from Oliver] Because I haven’t.” On rewatching, Oliver being forced to watch his best friend die in the rubble of an attack Oliver failed to stop is pretty crushing. Donnell acted the hell out of his last moments.
Two of the names on Oliver’s list are Isabel Rochev and Hannibal Bates. Shoulda… shoulda tried to cross them off sooner, Oliver. Could have saved yourself and the good people of Central City some grief down the line.
Season one sets a trend that lasts into season two: the costume tends to appear before the iconic character. Yao Fei was first to wear Oliver’s green hood (from which he gets his first nickname), Slade Wilson’s mask first appears on a thug we learn is his old partner Wintergreen (another departure, he’s basically Slade’s Alfred in the comics), and down the road Dinah Laurel Lance will not be the first person to use the codename “Canary.”
Another trend: names of key writers and artists from the comics are everywhere in this franchise. John Ostrander, Dan Didio, Gail Simone, that’s just off the top of my head. Suffice to say, if an address has names instead of numbers, they’re the names of comic creators.
Next time… Arrow opens the door to a larger, stranger world, multiple presumed-dead characters prove hard to kill, and no fewer than three cast members of The Flash make their debuts in what many considered to be Arrow’s best season.