Straight and Arrow

Stephen Amell as the Green Arrow

While I consume more than my fair share of media, I’ve generally been rather sparing with my choices for regular TV viewing.  I tend to wait for a show to have a solid first season in reviews and a strong beginning to a second before I even watch the pilot on the web.  Good writing is important to me, as are interesting and well-acted characters, although I gravitate to the more fantastic of the settings, even if that means passing up on some quality “real-world” dramas.  So Battlestar Galactica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are still my favorites, and I have yet to watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Dexter, although they are on my eventual list.  The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are my current indulgences.  A couple of friends who know my tastes suggested I give Arrow a look.

Arrow is based on the DC superhero Green Arrow, who in the comics is essentially a Batman-like “mere mortal” vigilante with a more limited arsenal (A bow and some trick arrows), a Robin Hood costume, a blond goatee, and leftist politics.  And like Batman, the Emerald Archer’s secret identity, Oliver Queen, is a billionaire playboy who runs a technology mega-corporation.  The TV adaptation on the CW (for those of you who, like me, tend to avoid network television, the CW was created as a merger of the WB and UPN) stars Stephen Amell as the titular character with a tone and setting that is attempting to capitalize on the success of Smallville, the soap-operafication of Clark Kent’s pre-Superman years, as well as the recent gritty reboots of Superman and Batman on the big screen.

As a kid I was only a very casual comic book reader, preferring sci-fi and fantasy novels.  When I was about 8, though, I was an eager fan of the Superman and Batman live actions shows on TV as well as the Superfriends cartoon (which has not aged well – kids’ cartoons have improved so much since the era of Hanna Barbara mass production).  As a teenager, some friends introduced me to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, both of which were regarded as signaling a new era in which comic book writing was to become more sophisticated and aimed at a broader and older (albeit still largely male, at the time) audience.  Published in 1986, these works tackled directly some of the thornier issues generated by the ideas of trans-humanism and vigilantism that have always undergirded the genre but had rarely been addressed with such serious depth.  Each imagined a near-present dystopia on the verge of nuclear war in which the US government was dominated by right-wing authoritarians who had either co-opted superheroes for military objectives or forced them into retirement.

Although the character dates back to the 1940’s, my first real exposure to the Green Arrow was his cameo toward the end of The Dark Knight Returns.  In the final chapter, Batman has violated his enforced retirement and has failed to comply with the demands of a US government on the cusp of nuclear war with the USSR.  Superman, now a co-opted agent of the US military is ordered by President “Reagan” to bring down the masked vigilante.  The Green Arrow, who had apparently served time in prison for being a commie anarchist and has always despised Superman’s blind obedience to a rigid legalism, agrees to help Batman in the final duel, contributing a single kryptonite arrow.  Superman wins, but Batman has faked his own death in order to continue or a more clandestine vigilante crusade against an increasingly dictatorial government.  On further inspection, I learned that at least since late 60’s, the Green Arrow has often been a critical voice exposing the ethical blind spots of other heroes in the DC pantheon, in particular that a “law and order” approach to crime often ignores or exacerbates some of the underlying causes of crime, such as economic inequality, racism, and the corruption of the wealthy.  This strikes me as incredibly rich source material for a contemporary series, especially in an era of Occupy, the One Percent, and unchecked government surveillance.

THE SKIVVY ON THE SERIES

Arrow boasts a strong ensemble cast.

So how does Arrow measure up?  For network television, it performs incredibly well, in my opinion.  But before praising its strengths, I would have to point out that it does have a few weaknesses that hold it back from being truly excellent.  Most of these stem from its network, which seems to aim most of its programming at what the executives perceive as the interests of its target demographic: late teens, early 20’s (despite its darker and more violent presentation).  Much of the character development occurs in night clubs, raves, the foyers of mansions, or during shopping trips.  On the one hand, the milieu of Oliver Queen the playboy billionaire ought to be spoiled, hedonistic, whiny, and callow.  But even the characters from more modest means, such as Roy Harper, are perfectly-coiffed, groomed, gelled, and sporting Abercrombie & Fitch.  I’m not sure I want to watch Oliver Queen 90210.

For a hero punishing the rich and powerful who are exploiting the poor and vulnerable, he actually knows very little of the exploited poor and vulnerable.  Oliver tells us in the voiceover that the bad crime boss of this week has cheated hundreds of poor, elderly retirees of their pensions, but we never actually see the lives of and consequences for the actual victims.  Laurel, Oliver’s once-and-future love interest, works as a pro bono attorney for the poor, but most of her clients come in looking like Stew and Margaret from the McMansion down the street.  The second season seems to be rectifying this a bit by setting more scenes in the devastated Glades (the ghetto), but it’s hard to see how Oliver can develop a social conscience without actually witnessing the suffering of the underclass firsthand (apparently in the comics, he eventually loses his fortune and has to actually live on the streets in the Glades – perhaps we’ll see this?)

While the writers spin some solid long-term arcs, the episodes usually follow a “villain-of-the-week” format, which was a criticism often made of Smallville (which I did not watch myself, except an episode here and there) and other successful WB hero series, such as Charmed.  For some unexplained reason, this seems to be a network gospel that successful cable series have wisely jettisoned.  In the Internet era, it’s easy to catch up on what you missed; you don’t need a weekly reset button returning us to status quo ante.  Not that all shows need to have ongoing plots like The Walking Dead (but note each episode in The Walking Dead still explores a distinct theme or character dynamic that marks it as a cohesive “chapter.”  Longer and more complex stories need not sacrifice formal episodicity.)

Fortunately, the writers have been able to mitigate some of the weaknesses of an episodic series by weaving two parallel story arcs into each season, taking an approach similar to Buffy or Lost.  One is set in the “present,” which has allowed the story to dive in medias res into the adventures of the Vigilante, or the “Hood,” as the police have dubbed him.  Experienced as ongoing flashbacks, the second story arc follows Oliver’s origin story.  Marooned for five years on a deserted island in the North China Sea (that has been blessed by foliage that looks suspiciously like that of British Columbia) after his father’s yacht has been sabotaged, Oliver is rescued by a bad-ass fugitive martial artist, pursued by paramilitaries set on provoking a war between the US and China, and slowly trained to leave his pampered, spoiled life behind to become a highly-trained hunter.  These flashbacks have also served to showcase Stephen Amell’s acting abilities.  While I think there are still ways for him to grow as an actor, it’s fun watching the contrasting physicalities of the high-pitched, slumping, shuffling brat; the tightly-wound, emotionally-restrained (stunted?), more mature Oliver; and the rageaholic, growling, unforgiving Hood.  This guy has a lot of potential as a leading man, even if this show doesn’t last long.

The promise of this scene was apparently what got John Barrowman to sign up as the Season One villain.

Have I mentioned the abs?  If you want constant female nudity, profanity, and sex, go watch HBO, which seems to contractually obligate their shows to show a certain quota of female flesh per week.  But if you want abs, Arrow is where you go.  Nearly every episode has Oliver’s impressive workout regimens (which Amell apparently does himself) interspersed with the drama.  I suppose the CW is going for the female (and gay) demographic here, since the superhero setting and pyrotechnic action ought to attract the young male demographic well enough.  But in Season 1, there was only a single, discreet sex scene – pretty tame even for network TV.  So the show is “sexy” without being actually sexy (more on that later).

Finally, while Oliver is the central pillar of the narrative, the show has a strong supporting cast of characters (and actors).  It’s very much an ensemble show, reminiscent of Buffy in some respects (although it has yet to reach such heights!).  In the comics, Green Arrow has superhero sidekicks and partners, such as Black Canary and Speedy, who are only just beginning to materialize in the Arrow story arc.  But the writers have created a new ordinary mortal team to share Oliver’s mission for the series: John Diggle (named after one of the writers of the comic series), Oliver’s African-American Iraq War veteran bodyguard (David Ramsey), and Felcity Smoak (a character from another DC hero mythology), an IT specialist who can basically do anything with something that has circuits (Emily Bett Rickards), both the comic relief and the truth-speaker.

Most importantly, these two characters are being used as the agents of Oliver’s ethical education.  In the comics (except for the after-the-fact origin stories), the Green Arrow arrives mostly as a fully-formed hero with a social conscience.  But in Arrow, the island gives Oliver superhero bad-assness, but he is not an ethically-mature person.  His two partners have issues with his overly vengeful and violent vigilantism (alliteration score!) in the first season, which leads to the experimentation with a less severe code of honor in the second season.  I think it’s a wonderful choice to make the hero a deeply flawed and evolving character as opposed to a boring paragon endpoint.  There’s a wonderful exchange in the second episode of the second season in which Oliver is assuming the CEO spot at Queen Consolidated.  I’m hoping this is a good sign of things to come.

            Oliver: I need a Girl Wednesday.

            Felicity: It’s ‘Friday’ and the answer is “No.”

            Oliver: These computers have been upgraded. Far more processing power than your typical secretary.

            Felicity: Did you know I went to MIT? Do you know what I majored in? Hint: Not the secretarial arts.

            Oliver: Felicity! We all need to have secret identities now. If I’m going to be ‘Oliver Queen, CEO,’ then I can’t very well travel down 18 floors every time you and I need to discuss how we spend our nights!

            Felicity: And I love spending the night with you [embarrassed at the innuendo, breathes]… 3… 2… 1… I worked very hard to get where I am and it wasn’t so I could fetch you coffee!

            Diggle: Well, it could be worse. My secret identity is his black driver.

One of the other important character development dynamics is how Oliver reconnects with his family after being presumed dead for five years.  His mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson), has remarried, but, it turns out, has also been involved in the main Big Bad plot to destroy the Glades in a synthetic earthquake and in the sabotage of the yacht that killed Oliver’s father and marooned him on the island.  While his initial ire is directed toward his stepfather, it turns out that his stepfather is much more of a stand-up guy than we are first led to believe.  There is also Oliver’s younger sister, Thea (Willa Holland), who is going through some rough growing pains, but interestingly ending up the most grounded of the Queen family.

LARGER DISQUIETS

Oliver Queen is not intimidated by the Beautiful People of the superhero class.

There are two components of the overall tone that make me reticent to give a full-hearted endorsement of the show.  The first is the super-serious tenor of the stories and dialogue.  The Green Arrow of the comic books is a snarky, rebellious, anarchic critic, who doesn’t mind pissing off the sanctimonious monologues of Superman and Batman.  DC’s products have been taking a second place to Marvel’s of late because of their über-serious and dark takes on Batman and Superman.  I like dark, no, I love dark, and I thought the DC movies really explored some of the complex issues of their heroes’ mythologies.  But The Avengers was downright fun, as have been the associated iterations of the different stories of the individual Avengers.  Yes, Marvel has long been dominated by the incomparable Stan Lee, who knows how to write superhero snark, and the movies are now being overseen by Joss Wheedon, one of the best writers of tragicomic dialogue ever.  But they could easily have opted for dark.  Tony Stark’s descent into alcoholism was a big theme in the comics, but the movies have opted to tip-toe around it.

I understand that the writers of Arrow don’t want to descend into the campiness of the 60’s Batman series.  But unlike Marvel’s generally witty lineup, Green Arrow is the only major DC hero with a robust and self-aware sense of humor.  The problem is that his humor has usually been oppositional.  He points out the flaws and hypocrisies of the A-Team: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman.  The political dialogues of Green Arrow and Green Lantern in the 70’s comics were the crucible out of which Green Arrow became more than a Batman clone.  Making him the central character creates some problems.  He’s no longer the commentator on the outside looking in, but I don’t think that’s an insurmountable writing challenge.  Amell has a talent for humor.  My favorite scenes in the series so far have been the raised eyebrows, spontaneous smirks, the lame cover-ups, and the rare banter.  It’s a tough balance when you’re going for dark and deep, but ultimately Green Arrow is not really a dark, brooding hero. He’s the dude cracking jokes in the back of the class. I hope they find a way to lighten up, just a bit.

In the 70’s Green Lantern and Green Arrow traveled the country together debating the options of leftist politics. When they got home, Oliver’s sidekick Speedy had become addicted to drugs.

My second issue is the overly self-sacrificial asceticism of the first season plot.  This seems to be an ongoing flaw with much superhero literature overall and has done a deep disservice to what was once the core audience, nerdy teenage males.  So many superheroes forgo pursuing healthy social lives because of the danger they might put their loved ones in or because of the potential distraction from the heroic mission.  Simply, this is a tired and outdated trope.  True, most religions espouse sexual abstinence as a way to achieve higher spiritual and moral states (and sometimes states of super-human miraculous powers).  The monks who taught me in high school spoke of their voluntary sublimation of desire for the sake of a higher good.  The dedication and discipline is admirable, but is it really a prerequisite for doing good deeds in the modern era?  I don’t think even my monks would have said so.  Unfortunately, the finale of the first season sets up waves and waves of guilt and destruction emanating from that single and brief sex scene I mentioned earlier.  Are we in a horror movie or something?

In the last few decades, superheroes have been growing up and developing stable relationships.  Superman and Spiderman have gotten married, and the Green Arrow of the comics, in addition to taking advantage of the free love of the 60’s and 70’s, also settled down and had at least one kid.  Yes, the hero who must forswear love is incredibly tragic, but it’s also bullshit.  I don’t need or want Arrow to become a sex-centric show, but it would be so refreshing to have a hero who can maintain and hide his identity from the general public and still manage to develop healthy and honest relationships with those around him.  Fortunately, none of the female characters on the show are shrinking violets, so it’s not misogynistic as so many comic book expressions have been in the past.  Superhero closets have dramatic resonance, but it would be a tribute to the Green Arrow of the comics to see Oliver transcend this issue in the series and come out to those closest to him.

There has to be a happy medium between womanizing playboy and sexual renunciant. You need to take a cue from . . . well, you!

In short, this series has a lot of potential in the source material, the ensemble talent they’ve gathered, and some of the narrative arcs the writers have decided to pursue.  The second season of a show like this often turns out to be the make-or-break moment.  In order to truly shine, I think Arrow needs to move beyond the perceived limited demographics of the CW and the dark, brooding, ascetic tropes favored by the current management of DC Comics.  It needs to embrace what is fun, interesting, and politically relevant about the Green Arrow mythos.

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