Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Too Much TV: ARROW (2012-present)

On the big screen, it is a notorious fact that DC Comics and its corporate parent Warner Bros. have fallen far behind Marvel Comics and its corporate parent Disney in exploiting the full potential of its comic book universe. Despite the massive success of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, by the time Nolan was done Marvel had surged past DC and Warners, with The Avengers outgrossing The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Worse, Nolan left DC no hooks on which to hang a universe, and so Warners had to start from scratch, with Nolan's help, with 2013's Man of Steel, and now has to wait until 2016 for a full-scale universe rollout with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Part of the problem for DC was that their first effort to launch another movie franchise following the historic phenomenon of The Dark Knight was Martin Campbell's Green Lantern, a debacle on nearly every level made more embarrassing by Marvel's increasing success introducing relatively unfamiliar characters. As a writer and producer of Green Lantern, Greg Berlanti has a share of the blame for handicapping the DC cinematic universe. That makes it somewhat ironic that Berlanti deserves nearly all the credit for DC's dominance over Marvel on television. As of this fall he'll be personally responsible for three DC shows, out of a larger number on the air or in development, while Marvel struggles along with Agents of SHIELD. As DC continues to proliferate, Arrow's debut in Fall 2012 appears to mark a new era in genre television. A number of factors account for DC's TV success, and to date it's unclear how much Berlanti's production team really has to do with it.

One of DC's biggest advantages is actually Marvel's self-imposed handicap. Agents of SHIELD is a spinoff of Marvel's movie universe, and that automatically makes the show a kind of minor-league operation, occasionally blessed by the appearance of movie characters but limited by a presumed reluctance to "waste" Marvel's more interesting characters and concepts on television when they might make millions if not billions in movies. For DC, however, movies and television are separate universes that do not cross over. The movie Flash, for instance, will be played by someone other than Grant Gustin, who plays Flash on TV. While this disappoints some of Gustin's new fans who'd like to see him on the big screen, the benefit of separate universes is that nearly everything in DC's repertoire is available for use in both TV and movies. On Arrow, for instance, Ra's al-Ghul has emerged as a major antagonist despite being a Batman villain who figured prominently in Nolan's films, and a version of the Suicide Squad will exist parallel to the movie franchise scheduled to launch late next year. With the possible exception of Superman and Batman themselves (not counting Bruce Wayne as a child, as seen of the non-Berlanti Gotham show), everything is up for grabs in DC's TV universe. As a result, the TV universe doesn't automatically seem second rate the way Agents of SHIELD does as an appendage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I can't say too much about SHIELD since I quit watching after the first four episodes. I'm told it's gotten much better since then, but the initial decision to base the show around original and initially uninteresting characters alienated me from the project. I couldn't help thinking that Joss Whedon & co. made up these new characters because more established characters were off-limits, while Greg Berlanti had far fewer constraints.

But if Berlanti had fewer restraints, Arrow's presence on the CW network imposed certain obligations. The CW was the home of the most successful superhero series ever, the Superman-prequel Smallville, but it's better known as a network with virtually a house genre tailored to a predominantly female audience. As with Smallville, there are more "soap opera" elements to Arrow than many male fans are comfortable with, just as there's arguably a greater preoccupation with beefcake than with cheesecake. It must have been disturbing to the still mainly male readership of DC Comics to see ads for Arrow highlighting its shirtless male stars during the show's second season. Less superficially, Arrow sets the tone for modern superhero shows by emphasizing the emotional complications and consequences of living with a secret identity, or with secrets of any sort. The necessity of a double life and its benefits for hero and loved ones alike are no longer taken for granted. Hardly an hour of Arrow goes by without characters freaking out over secrets that had been kept from them, secrets being equivalent to lies. Trust is always at stake. I'm assured that these issues really matter to female viewers, but I admit that the repetition of these themes sometimes leaves me longing for Hawksian professionalism as practiced by more grown-up characters. Ours is a less self-assured, less stoic culture, however, and in Nolan's term Arrow is arguably the hero or the show we deserve.

Arrow, of course, is based on Green Arrow, one of DC's oldest and longest-lasting characters. Created in 1941, GA was one of the few DC superheroes to be published uninterruptedly through the entire "Golden Age" of comics and into the "Silver Age" that began in the mid-1950s. The definitive form of the character didn't appear until 1969, when artist Neal Adams and writer Denny O'Neil turned Oliver Queen into a bearded radical, in attitude if not in conduct more like his ancient Robin Hood model. Berlanti's Oliver Queen bears little resemblance to that Green Arrow, but the show retains the traditional origin story in which Ollie (Stephen Amell) acquires his skills while stuck on a desert island. Since TV abhors a lone hero, however, Ollie has a number of teachers during his years on the island, most prominently Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett, playing a character borrowed from Teen Titans comics), an Australian special forces officer on a secret mission destined to become Arrow's nemesis in the second season. Arrow developed along Kung Fu lines, cross-cutting between Ollie's present-day vigilante adventures in Starling City and his younger self's struggles on the island. While the flashbacks are often thematically relevant, they also have a dramatic continuity of their own independent of Ollie's reminiscences. Since TV really abhors a lone hero, Ollie -- known initially as "the Hood" or "the Starling City Vigilante" before he settled on the show title in the second season -- gradually accumulated a little support network on top of a more extensive family than Queen had in the comics. He didn't get his traditional sidekick, Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) until late in the first season, but by that time he already had a competent wingman in erstwhile government agent and bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey) and a too-beautiful-to-be-true computer genius in Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). These helpers often give Ollie moral guidance, steering him away from his early execution-style vendetta against the city's corrupt elite ("You have failed this city!" was his catchphrase) toward less ambiguous heroism dedicated to protecting rather than punishing people.

During its first two season Arrow felt like a show that was evolving in ways its creators hadn't intended, but to their joy. The most likely departure from script was the mass shipping of Ollie and Felicity -- "Ollicity" in the obnoxious jargon of shipping -- at the expense of Ollie's original love interest, Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy). The Lance name signaled that Laura was destined to become the Black Canary, Green Arrow's partner in crimefighting and romance, but only in the third season has Laurel donned that costume, inheriting it from a sister whose return from the seeming dead in the second season seemed like a delaying action until Cassidy was ready for the requirements of a heroic role. For the first two years of the show Laurel was probably its most hated character because she existed almost exclusively on a soap-opera level, and Ollicity filled the void as Rickards rose from occasional comic bit player to virtual co-star of the show. There seems to be an effort this year to undermine Ollicity now that Laurel is ready to play her destined role, but I don't care to predict how things will evolve on this front.

In any event, as an old comic book fan I watched the show for the action, which worked on a level unprecedented for TV superhero shows. The show's peak so far is the second half of the second season, when Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke) emerged as a master villain and madman fuelled by a strength-enhancing drug and an obsession with punishing Ollie for the death of a woman Slade loved. Using a religious cult as a front, Slade built an army of superhuman killers, forcing Ollie and friends to get help from the as yet-unseen Ra's al-Ghul's League of Assassins to save Starling City from destruction from within and without as a frantic U.S. government considered extreme measures to contain Slade's army. The show has lost steam since then, and the return to prominence of the first season's Big Bad, Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman), is a troubling sign. Malcolm was the father of Ollie's best friend Tommy, who died in a Merlyn-engineered earthquake at the end of Season One, but in Season Two it was revealed during one of his brief appearances that he's also the father of Ollie's sister Thea (Willa Holland), an oft-troubled and sometimes addicted girl (whose nickname, "Speedy," was Roy Harper's in the early comics) whom Malcolm has trained to be a warrior if not a killer in his own image. Since family is very important on TV, I worry that Malcolm will be treated like family and thus become a permanent part of the show after already wearing out his welcome, despite the show's tease of a redemption arc for this mass murderer.With too much emphasis on Malcolm and Thea, Arrow could go the way of Heroes, the onetime phenomenon (now scheduled for a comeback) that grew tiresome for its refusal to move beyond its original villains and family dynamics. Arrow has never been a great show, but it has often been fun, yet it may be less fun the longer Malcolm hangs around and discourages the writers from trying new things.  There are troubling signs that they may not have had any real idea of what to do beyond the first two seasons. They're already assured of a fourth season, but they'll need to work harder than ever to deserve a fifth. That being said, Arrow's place in TV history is already assured, even if its progeny eventually surpass it.


hobbyfan said...

"Ollie has a number of teachers during his years on the island, most prominently Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett, playing a character borrowed from Teen Titans comics), an Australian special forces officer on a secret mission destined to become Arrow's nemesis in the second season."

So Berlanti is also changing nationalities. I'm beginning to wonder how much he really knows about comics. Between him and Josh Trank, it seems reading comics isn't a requirement anymore for Hollywood's new generation of creators, but that itself is a slippery slope. As you know, Sam, Slade Wilson was originally an American military man in the books when introduced 35 years ago.

Pretty soon, I'm going to be going through the season 1 DVD set, then investing in Season 2 if needed. Too expensive at $45-50, and Walmart's not about to do a roll-back......

Samuel Wilson said...

Hobbyfan: does Wilson's nationality really matter? Has TV really done violence to sacred comics texts by changing it? Watch Manu Bennett when he fully takes on the appearance of Slade Wilson/Deathstroke in the second season and then tell me as a comics fan if you want to find fault.

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Great article about Arrow. I'm a big DC fan. I wish their films where on a par with the Marvel ones. Their shows on the other hand, Arrow and Flash are phenomenal.

hobbyfan said...

My only question is, what was wrong with keeping Slade the way he was? Why make him an Aussie? I get creative license and all that, but they have to remember that there are people far more anal than you & I about such matters.

Samuel Wilson said...

Prof., I still enjoy Arrow but it's been getting harder this season, especially when Ollie has to behave like an idiot as on this week's episode.

Hobby, I guess that given the geographic location of Lianyu island and the type of role they wanted Slade to play originally, it made less sense for him to be American or whatever he is in comics. Or else Bennett won the auditions despite his accent and Slade was reimagined to accommodate a worthy actor.