Live action superhero shows like CW’s Arrow have been notoriously tricky to pull of successfully. Aside from the couple successes, most attempts at realizing superheroes on television have fallen into several major categories of failure. There have been the critically acclaimed but quickly cancelled, like The Tick. There are shows that start off promising and then putter out of steam during their run, like Heroes, or shows that have no steam coming out of the gate, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Then there are the complete flops… remember The Cape? One look at the failed 2011 pilot for Wonder Woman, which can be found online, shows that if not done correctly live action superhero shows come off completely cartoonish, and not in a fun way. It is because of all these odds stacked against it that the CW series – which is currently in its second season and firing on all cylinders – is even more of a standout success.
So what exactly sets Arrow apart from the rest? For starters, the show – which centers on green-hooded bow-toting vigilante named Oliver Queen – learns as it goes. Many television shows, regardless of genre, set up a format or style and then rigidly stick with it. Arrow, on the other hand, seems to be written by people who are watching carefully, paying attention to what works and what does not work, and then adjusting the show accordingly as it goes forward. For example, early in the first season Oliver met a young IT consultant named Felicity Smoak. Despite being a very small part, the character made a lasting impression. As embodied by standout cast member Emily Bett Rickards, Felicity brought a lightness and a humor that were new flavors in the series, which tends to be more dark and serious in tone. Most importantly, she brought out a fun, comedic side in the normally stoic Oliver. A character like that could easily be forgotten, but the show recognized a chance to grow something interesting, and began bringing Felicity back time and time again. By the time the second season began, she was a full-fledged main cast member and an irreplaceable and necessary element in the show. This ability to constantly grow and evolve is key for a serialized series like this, and producers have already promised that season three will have a markedly different tone then the current one.
Another thing the show excels at is creating a lead character with flaws and genuine pathos. Oftentimes in a superhero television adaptations, the lead characters seem to be simply “good guys” with no gray area. Oliver’s main story arc for the entire first season of the show was about him questioning his own morality. He began the season with no qualms about killing his enemies, but found himself constantly mired in questions of where he needed to draw the line in order to prevent the corrosion of his soul. Many of the other characters functioned as reflections of Oliver, showing possibilities of different paths he could take and what he could potentially let himself become. Many superheroes either kill and show no qualms about it, or do not do it whatsoever. Arrow chose to to attempt to depict some of the actual moral quandaries that a vigilante would face and how those questions would weigh on a person. Additionally, the show is structured with flashbacks that show how Oliver, over five years stranded on an island, transformed from a spoiled rich boy into a hardened, scarred warrior. The show has a lead character much more rounded and with many more shades than most.
The list goes on and on – there are many other ways the series gets it right. The success of the show has led to a spinoff being ordered, this one centered around classic DC Comics character The Flash. As Arrow hurtles toward the finale of its thrilling second season, the producers of The Flash should sit back and take notes: this is how it is done.
Opinion by: Alex Warheit